Sunday, April 10, 2011

Guest Post by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

On Editing and Pesky Adverbs

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

We are often warned that adverbs can be overdone. Then writers take the warning too literally; they think they shouldn’t use any at all!

Of course, we wouldn't have adverbs if they didn't serve a purpose. But when we examine them -- carefully (very carefully!) we often find that they duplicate a quality that the very has already achieved for us. That makes them redundant.

Or they are awkward. Or they slow down the forward movement of a sentence.

Authors also worry when an editor removes their adverbs. They think those edits will change their voices. Though an author can (and should) reject edits that he/she thinks aren't appropriate, these edits of adverbs rarely change a voice. Certainly voice isn't achieved by using adverbs or most other edits. It is achieved by much subtler elements of writing. Point of view. Use of colloquialism or slang. Choice of detail.

For the most part, I think most writers worry way too much on having their voice changed and not enough about improving their writing skills.

Having said that, I worry more about editors who don’t really have the training to be editors. Would an editor really remove all of a writer’s adverbs? And how would a new author know if an editor is overstepping if he/she doesn’t have lots of information on editing under his or her own little writers’ belt?

I do hope those of you who have been relying on an outside editor -- someone you hired or a friend -- will read The Frugal Editor It includes lots on how to partner with an editor, how to save money hiring an editor, and how to hire one that is compatible with your personality and the kind of writing you do. Many good editors like Barbara McNichol ( specialize in specific genres, nonfiction vs. fiction, etc. Larry Brooks ( helps writers of fiction specifically with structure. Good editors know that it is hard to be an expert at everything.

Editing is a two-way street. There's gotta be some trust and also some confidence. The more an author knows about editing, the better equipped she or he is to discard or keep edits.

So, yep. Examine every adverby "ly" word. And then use each one to your advantage. Know the other adverbs (like “even” and “just”). There is a list in The Frugal Editor ( Especially the ones you tend to overuse. Either discard each one or use one of the methods in The Frugal Editor to turn them into more visual writing.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults, and speaks on issues of publishing. Learn more about her other authors' aids at where writers will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on editing at and all things publishing (not just editing!) at She tweets writers' resources at


Virginia S Grenier said...

I couldn't say it all here even if I wanted to. Carolyn, I don't know where my writing career would be without you. You gave me the wind to spread my writing wings back when I was starting out. You are and will always be an inspiration to me.

Dallas, thanks for hosting such an amazing woman and thank you too for all that you do for young authors and those of us at VBT.

Magdalena Ball said...

It's so easy to overuse adverbs - thanks for the reminder to check, especially when self-editing. I'll also take this opportunity to recommend your marvellous book The Frugal Editor - it's the best self-editing book (wonderfully, carefully, cleverly written).

The Old Silly said...

Adverbs and adjectives are so wonderfully and truly and easily overused, especially by the newly started freshman writer who is so frightfully and eagerly trying to simply impress. But they are actually doing, actually, really very much the opposite, hmm?
Like writing, "he ran quickly to the car" - where the redundancy of adding 'quickly' to the already 'quick' action of running is not only unnecessary, it slows the speed of the statement. If you want to add some zip to the 'ran' choose a better verb: sped, raced, sprinted, hauled ass, etc.

LOL, good topic and well coached, HoJO, as usual. (smile) I have sometimes scared freshman authors away from using adverbs to the point that they took ALL of them out for fear of the mighty red pen! I'd have to calm them down, remind them of lots of the distinguishing uses of right and wrong that you just posted here.

As you have so well said, the adverb (and adjective, since we're on the 'ad' subject) has a place in good prose. Just make sure it adds to the forward, fluid motion and description of the story without being redundant, awkward, slowing, and/or appearing as obviously lazy writing. In 9 out of 10 cases, an adverb is not necessary if the author takes the time to select the precise, accurate verb to describe the action, hmm?

Good post! And nice job on the layout, Dallas!

Chow, peeps - :-)
Marvin D Wilson

Dallas said...

Carolyn it's such a pleasure to have you here today! You have more fans and friends than you could ever imagine!

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, what great information. Adverbs are a topic most writers have to look into at one point or another. And, it is so important to get edits from someone who knows what he/she is doing; it can make a world of difference in the end product.

I have both your Frugal books Carolyn, and I use them all the time!

Thanks for sharing this with us Dallas.

Nancy Famolari said...

Carolyn, wonderful discussion. It's important to remember that, like salt, too much can make the dish unpalatable, but so can too little! Your point is well taken about untrained editors. A rule is made to be broken, but only by experts!!

Thanks for hosting the great article, Dallas!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Oh, gosh. Such a list of great comments. Thank you all! It was a great way to start a Sunday!

Thanks Old Silly, for the examples of how adverbs might come off when overused!

And about that self-editing, Maggie. We all gotta do it sometimes, right? Most of us haven't the money or time to hire an editor to review every single query letter we send out, as an example. And the more we know about editing, the better partners we make for the editors we do hire!

Best to you all!

madcapmaggie said...

Carolyn, I have The Frugal Book Editor, and it is a huge help. I just can't say enough good things about it.

Peggy, speaking adverbially

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Thank you, Maggie. I--for some reason--can't get people as excited about editing (and grammar, etc) as about promotion. I think they are equally important. And equally excciting!

Heidiwriter said...

Excellent post! I think it was Mark Twain who said "all adverbs should be eliminated" or something like that. I agree--rules are guidelines and like most things, use cautiously, like a strong spice.

kathy stemke said...

Thank you for your incredible words of wisdom Carolyn. You're the greatest!

Donna M. McDine said...

Terrific article from Carolyn. No surprise there! I have The Frugal Book Promoter and the Frugal Editor, so let's just say they are my writing Bibles.

Dallas, well done post! It's been fun visiting!

Mari said...

Guilty as charged with overusing adverbs. It's something I'm trying to be more diligent about correcting.