Write Right: Easy on the Adverbs

Write RightElmore Leonard has a rule regarding adverbs: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’” His rule could be applied to adverbs as a whole. When possible, if at all possible, avoid adverbs.

Adverbs often are fluff words. Cut them, and the meaning of the passage remains intact. Cut them, and the writing becomes stronger. Cut them and replace them with stronger words. Don’t settle upon an adverb when a better word – the right word – is available and waiting to be found. Keep searching for the right word. Find it and lose the adverbs.

To put it another way:

Streamline the writing. Watch it begin to sing instead of stumble from one place to another. If adverb-free writing is the man who knows where he is going and the steps to getting there, adverb-heavy writing is the town drunkard who stumbles into people and objects and says inappropriate things at all times. Leave the drunkard in jail for the night. Let him go free the next morning but only if he’s sober. If he isn’t, keep him in jail a while longer.


  1. I love cutting fluff. What would I do if bad writers didn’t add useless words to sentences? If I had a dollar for every time one of the staff writers at my job started a sentence with Therefore, However, Moreover, At the end of the day or Basically, I would be out of work 🙂
    Don’t be that lazy. Lazy writing is always weak.

    •  @NancyD68 Fortunately for the both of us, there are plenty of writers who might want the help of an editor or coach. 🙂
      Lazy writing is weak, and adverbs sometimes (not always) are indicative of laziness. I remember my creative writing professor drilling the “be concrete” rule into my head. Concrete writing may use adverbs, but those adverbs are there for a reason. 

  2. DanielPapke says:

    On the other hand, why should the words exist if we can’t use them? I enjoy writing filled with metaphors and imagery. That sort of writing (Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” is an example) often uses adverbs.

    •  @DanielPapke I enjoy writing that uses metaphors and imagery, too. I’m simply (to use an adverb) suggesting that it’s easy to gloss over shoddy writing when it’s filled with nice-sounding words. Too many people use adverbs because they don’t take the time to find the right word. Writers such as Bradbury are different. Their use of adverbs is intentional. Elmore Leonard still might have some words for them, though. He seems adamant about his adverb rule. 

  3. I think you’re right on about going easy on the adverbs. This is particularly important before a writer becomes aware of the costs and benefits of each adverb. And then I think it is safe to use adverbs again, as long as you know what you’re gaining and what you’re losing every time you use an adverb. I use Elmore Leonard’s rule 99% of the time. But there are those occasions (wish I could track down a good example here…)  when a nicely placed adverb adds a new dimension to the sentence. For instance, when the adverb is surprisingly and refreshingly contrary to the way something is normally stated…

    •  @yuvizalkow Exactly. I do believe you’ve found the intention behind this piece. Adverbs are allowable, but only if you’re aware of the costs and benefits of them.
      By the way, nice use of adverbs in your final sentence. 🙂
      I’m trying to think of a good example of adverbs in use, too, but I’m stuck with poets who pare their lines down to almost nothing and, yet, somehow everything…Maybe Plath? She seems like someone who would have known the power of an artfully placed adverb.

  4. MSchechter says:

    Funny you should mention Elmore Leonard, my brother actually just spent the last two days with him in Detroit (my bro wrote the screenplay for The Switch and is going to direct it later this year). I can’t wait to hear all about it. Bragging about my bro aside, I’m so damn guilty of this it’s not even funny. My wife is banning me from using words that end in ly.

    •  I think @MSchechter  is just worried that your town drunkard analogy was a reference to him…
      (That’s really great about your brother, by the way! I’d love to hear some stories about it…)

      •  @yuvizalkow  @MSchechter Hahaha! I don’t remember when I wrote this post. It could have occurred after listening to a Mikes on Mics podcast. 😉
        I’ve seen references to your brother and Elmore Leonard in some status updates on Facebook. I agree with Yuvi. I’d like to hear some stories.
        I found an illustrated copy of Elmore Leonard’s rules at Half Price Books a few months ago. I love that book.

        • MSchechter says:

           @Erin F.  @yuvizalkow So my brother is a filmmaker (his next last film primeres at Tribeca on Friday: http://www.joblo.com/movie-news/exclusive-lena-dunham-watches-arielle-kibbel-get-sexy-in-this-clip-from-dan-schechters-supporting-characters (sorry for the shameless link, but I’m a proud big bro)) and on spec he decided to write the screenplay to The Switch (which is the prequel to Jackie Brown). It picked up some traction and he got Leonard’s permission to make the thing. So far Mos Def, John Hawkes, Jennifer Anniston and Dennis Quaid are signed on, so things are looking good.
          As for the visit, it was twofold. Leonard was taking him around Detroit to show him the spots that inspired the story and they are doing a doc on Elmore and I guess they wanted to interview Dan about the project. It’s been pretty damn cool to watch from afar. 

        •  @MSchechter  @yuvizalkow There is nothing wrong with being the proud, elder (eldest?) sibling. I act the same way when my brothers do or are doing amazing things.

      • MSchechter says:

         @yuvizalkow I wasn’t worried, I was certain. Especially after last nights recording session (if you can call it that). Doing two sessions (four episodes) back to back was a REALLY bad idea.

        •  @MSchechter  @yuvizalkow Well, I haven’t actually listened to last night’s episode…I’ll have to get some writing done before I listen to the podcast. I’ve yet to master the skill of being able to write and to listen to a podcast at the same time.

    •  @MSchechter Bravo to your wife. A ban on certain words is the best way to learn how to use them. 🙂

      • MSchechter says:

         @Erin F. There’s actually going to be a pretty cool tool coming soon to help with this. I’m sworn to secrecy at the moment, but will be screaming about it from the rooftops when it goes live (it’s not my project, just something I begged someone for).

  5. This is a great post, Erin! I think the town drunkard analogy is the best I’ve ever read! Thanks for making grammar fun 😉

    •  @WordsDoneWrite Thanks, Amber, and you’re welcome! I have no idea (anymore) what made me think of the town drunkard, but I’m glad the idea visited me. 🙂