Strictly, forcefully, authoritatively, kill your ly adverbs…mostly

The ly adverb stands as one flag to many editors that a writer lacks confidence. Stephen King makes the case in On Writing that if a scene is set well enough, if the characters are well-presented, a reader will know from context if a person shuts a door forcefully or gently or spoke harshly or any of these other unattractive adornments.

I’m inclined to agree, though like my previous blog on passive tense, I propose that weak prose comes from overuse rather than any use at all.  The overuse of ly adverbs results in “purple prose,” a melodramatic stew of hack writing hell.

Richard Sherman, the fictional book editor in the classic comedy The Seven Year Itch, describes purple prose as “All that inwardly downwardly pulsating and back with the hair spilled across the pillow malarkey!” And I don’t think I can say it better myself. Every ly verb breaks the fiction rule that “less is more”.

Like passive verbs, ly adverbs should be high on a writer’s extermination list. 9 times out of 10–no, 99 times out of 100–the ly occurrence in a rough draft can be phrased better without it. That said, in spite of King’s claim, even he has snuck in the occasional adverb when it best suits his purpose, as do many other pros.

Here’s a topic for another blog that I need to touch upon now–one difference between a beginner and a pro is that the pro learns and masters the rules. They are aware of the rule, and may make the occasional, conscious choice to break the rule when they know it best serves the story.

RJ’s rule of thumb: Once a chapter, a few times in a novel, those instances can stand as deliberate choices if the writer can defend them to him or her self. Several times a page, sorry, that’s weak writing, and the writer has some work to do.

There’s a second conversation about where the ly should go in sentence, and the most famous split infinitive of pop culture, Roddenberry’s “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yes, I love it too, as much for The Shat’s delivery as the actual words, and having grown up with that phrase, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Written correctly, (see what I did there?) the phrase should be “….to go boldly where no man has gone before.” But no, I wouldn’t dream of changing it.

Another blog topic I may or may not tackle is on acceptable standards from long ago. (Beware the bad habits you can acquire from classic literature–like parenthetical asides, oh my!) So rather than quibble about the exceptions and the famous goofs, let’s just move forward and do better.

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  1. Good advice, and well said.

    I learned about the evils of -ly adverbs very early on in my critique group, but it took years for it to become habit. I eradicated ALL -ly adverbs for a long while, but have relaxed a bit. Sometimes avoiding the adverbs for something that doesn’t need that kind of impact results in something more awkward than just leaving them.

    My other major bugaboo was passive voice. It continues to plague me.

    (And curse you, I LOVE parenthetical asides! LOL)

    1. I like parenthetical asides, too, and in spite of the rule (and chastising from a writer peer–you may have been there) I kept two in Fate of the Red Lotus. There was no easier way to communicate what I wanted to say there.

      I draw the line at footnotes, though. Two SF giants love long rambling footnotes and use them to this day. But no.

      1. Meh. The only use of footnotes I’ve ever cared for in fiction were humorous. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett in particular had funny footnotes. Even then, they’re distracting, but usually worth the side trip.

  2. I particularLY like your points that avoiding certain constructions entireLY can lead to stilted, awkward writing, and that judicious allowance can work well. I learned, in high school, that “always” and “never” were usualLY code for “this is the wrong answer” on multiple-choice tests.

    1. Thanks, Marian. I think the point is that new writers should know the rules, learn them, put them into practice, and master them. Then like a set of training wheels, set them aside and hit the dirt trails when they build up their confidence. I like rules. I like do’s and don’ts, it makes learning the craft simpler. But to your point, a strict adherence can result in a stilted voice that no one wants to read.

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