NO ADVERBS: The Reason Behind the Rule

If you’ve read any guide about improving your writing, you’ve heard the “No Adverbs” rule. Cross them out, delete them, take a tiny lighter and burn a hole through every –ly word that dares rear its ugly head until your manuscript looks like Swiss cheese, but don’t you ever, under any circumstances, ever use an adverb!

… Really?

Come on, folks. Adverbs are perfectly functional members of language society. It’s not their fault they’re so easily misused.

Adverbs are descriptors for verbs and adjectives, just like adjectives are descriptors for nouns. They tend to end in –ly, though there are adverbs that don’t (fast, regardless, seldom) and other non-adverb words that do (lovely, imply, gravelly).

(To quote a certain pirate movie: “Hang the code, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”)

The problem arises when you use an adverb to support a word that’s not pulling its weight. ‘Said’ is a grievous repeat offender.

  • “You’re making a scene,” she said quietly.
  • “I’ll call the cops,” said the man angrily.
  • “Can I have some candy?” the girl said pleadingly.

Vanilla Verbs (or Vanilla Vocabulary), as I like to call them, are so bland yet so familiar that writers will use them as the first word that comes to mind. Examples: say, eat, run, walk, move, etc.

They’re words that have entire lists of synonyms in the thesaurus because they cover whole ranges of action that they cannot accurately convey without help (such as adverbs).

To return to our examples:

  • Said quietly – whispered, murmured.
  • Said angrily – growled, shouted.
  • Said pleadingly – pleaded.
    (That’s it. Go home. You’re shoring up a weak verb with an adverb made from the gerund form of a strong verb – stop the madness!)

Let me break for a moment for a quick disclaimer: ‘said’ is a perfectly acceptable dialogue tag by itself. It’s also perfectly acceptable to leave the dialogue tag off completely if your readers can infer which character is speaking from the dialogue alone. I do not advise using specialized verbs to tag every single line of dialogue. That way lies madness and pissed-off readers. However, if you are using ‘said’ and you feel the need for more description, then yes, I would suggest looking for a stronger verb rather than using ‘said’ paired with an adverb.

With that out of the way, back to our regularly scheduled programming!

So yes, adverbs are abused in ways that are easy to correct through proper word choice or careful rephrasing. Does that mean that you never use them, never-ever, cross your heart and hope to die?


Use adverbs when you cannot find a verb with the exact shade of meaning that you need. Use them to add description to verbs and adjectives that are already working to their full potential yet still need a little boost.

The train rattled along the track.

The train rattled briskly along the track.

Personification! The train has places to go and things to do. It’s moving quickly but not hastily, in a businesslike fashion.

The flower bloomed beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts.

The flower bloomed feebly beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts.

‘Bloom’ is a very specialized verb with few synonyms (blossom, burgeon, flower, unfold). So if you want to add more description to the action, you really do need some extra help. You can add another phrase – “The flower bloomed beneath the gardener’s fumbling efforts, though the growth was feeble.” – but if word count is a factor, that one adverb can look pretty attractive beside that five word phrase.

Or you can use adverbs to flip a verb on its head with unexpected meaning.

The baby wailed despite his mother’s cajoling.

The baby wailed defiantly despite his mother’s cajoling.

Here’s a new shade of meaning with a hint of anger and rebellion. Usually to describe a ‘loud, angry, rebellious noise’ you would use a word like ‘roar’ or ‘bellow’, but those don’t quite fit a baby’s cry, do they? So it becomes a bit of a language equation.

Loud baby noise + angry, rebellious = wailed defiantly.

So yes, adverbs can be misused, and they often are. If you’re mindful, however, they are a valuable tool for any writer.

Can you think of verb/adverb or adjective/adverb pairs that work together in unexpected ways?

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Plot = Change

Today, a brief word on what I mean when I talk about plots.

In a word, a plot is change. That’s going to be the one of the key things to remember. Books have lots of plots, lots of changes, but typically they’re all twined together into one larger plot, like smaller strands woven into a braid.

When I’m plotting, I try to look for the central change that will be the heart of my story. (And I also make a very real effort to KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid—because this is one part where getting down to the nitty gritty details too early in the game will drive you six kinds of bonkers.)

I like to diagram changes like so:

Subject: beginning → end

Usually the central change of a story is defeating the Big Baddie. Here are some examples from popular stories.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Quirrel/Voldemort: undercover at Hogwarts → defeated (temporarily)
Star Wars: A New Hope

Death Star: threat → destroyed

I say that the central change is usually defeating the Big Baddie because plots are like ogres and onions—they have layers. So, looking at Lord of the Rings, if the central change were defeating the Big Baddie, the diagram would look like this:

Sauron: threat → defeated

Don’t get me wrong. Defeating Sauron is a major focus of Lord of the Rings, but it’s not the central change. The central change starts the book and ends the book*. Sauron has been a threat for hundreds of years (thousands of years? I’m not up on my Middle Earth timelines), but Lord of the Rings doesn’t start way back then. It doesn’t even start with the Battle of the Last Alliance. It starts in the Shire.

It starts when Bilbo leaves the One Ring to Frodo. It starts when Gandalf realizes exactly what “Bilbo’s funny magic ring” really is.

Lord of the Rings

One Ring: rediscovered → destroyed

And the central change doesn’t have to be defeating evil at all. Toy Story’s central change is about Woody and Buzz’s relationship.

Woody + Buzz: rivalry → friendship

That central change influences other secondary changes, like being separated from Andy → being reunited with Andy, or Buzz believing he’s a real space ranger → accepting he’s a toy (and being okay with that).

So next time you’re reading a book or watching a movie, take a moment to consider the beginning of the story and the end of the story and see if you can spot the changes—in a character’s personality, the environment, society, politics, the possibilities go on and on—and consider how they influence one another.

Think of it as an exercise for your writer’s brain. The more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more ideas you’ll have for your own plots.


*Lord of the Rings gets special mention because the central change—destroying the One Ring—doesn’t end the book. There’s an entire hobbit-only adventure at the end where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin have to retake the Shire, because Saruman is a vindictive old word-I’m-not-allowed-to-say-in-front-of-impressionable-youth. If Tolkien had consulted modern writing instructors who favored the One Plot To Rule Them All approach**, they probably would have told him to cut that section entirely, put it in a sequel, or find a way to save the Shire before defeating Sauron, just to neaten up the structure. I guess the takeaway is that if you’re good enough at what you do, you can tell the rules to go hang.

**There are books that have several central changes which all happen in a kind of overlapping structure, but Lord of the Rings doesn’t really fall under this umbrella either since it’s 95% Destroy the Ring and 5% Reclaim the Shire. I’ll discuss this more later, but for now we’ll focus on books with just the one central change.***

***I may be overdoing footnotes a bit. I regret nothing.