EDITING 101: 09 – Cutting “ly” Adverbs and Enhancing Scenes…

 Cutting “ly” Adverbs and Enhancing Scenes

Good morning, proactive, hands-on self-editors! Are you ready for your next task?

In EDITING 101: 03 ‘THAT’s the Problem in Revising’, we talked about cutting out individual words and decreasing word count. I told you then we’d talk further about more cutting, but in a way which would increase your word count. That’s what will happen when you cut out “ly” adverbs.

First off, why are “ly” adverbs so horrible? They’re not. Yes, you heard me right—they’re a perfectly legitimate part of English and their appropriate use is not prohibited. Let me state it another way:

  • It’s ok to use “ly” adverbs!

I think she’s really gone off the deep end this time, Chris. Honestly, first she tells us to cut out these things, and then she tells us it’s ok to use them! I think you’d better get another editor to write this series…”

No, no, no. Let me finish.

The reason writers are told to eliminate as many “ly” adverbs as possible—note: I did not say all!—is because they can be overused by writers. Especially newer writers who are still learning the craft of writing and sometimes take the easy way out. Using an “ly” adverb can sometimes be “the easy way out.” For example:

  • Mark walked tiredly to his car.

Nothing wrong with that, is there? Concise, understandable… But easy. Too easy. It’s flat and boring. How does this sound in comparison.

  • Mark crossed the parking lot to his car, his knuckles seeming to drag on the pavement in his exhaustion.

We’ve added thirteen words to the action, taking out the “ly” adverb and enhancing the scene. It’s not too flowery or overly wordy. But it gives the reader a lot more information. In the first sentence, was he walking along a street? In a parking garage? Across a field? In the second, we see he’s in a parking lot. In the first, he’s tired. Ok, we understand. But in the second, we see the depth of his tiredness. That’s the key to enhancing a scene—depth.

In EDITING 101:  06, ‘He Said / She Said: Dialogue Tags,’ we talked about using dialogue tags such as “shouted,” “muttered,” and “roared,” and how expanding a scene can give the reader a better understanding of what’s going on without relying on the easy way out. This is the same thing.

Expanding scenes will add to your word count, but you can then trim the word count in other, subtle ways—such as removing the individual words noted in Article 03.

If anybody’s up for an exercise, why not choose one of these easy-way-out sentences and offer a rewrite?

  • She ran quickly to keep up with him.

  • Rover sniffed excitedly, hot on the trail.

  • The murderer crept along silently.

  • It snowed heavily at first.

When I write these articles, after I spell check them, I check for “ly” adverbs and excessive “that”s. So I follow my own advice!

Next week we’ll discuss ‘What Happens When You Die?’ (a practical, necessary discussion about your writing, books, accounts, etc).

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE


This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.





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36 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 09 – Cutting “ly” Adverbs and Enhancing Scenes…

  1. Indeed, Susan. When -ly (and other modal adverbs) are on a page it is ofter the main culprit to look for when a writer is told that his prose is all about ‘telling’ and nothing about ‘showing’.

    Tolstoy said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

    A writer needs to know the rules, so to know when he’s breaking them, but “Show, do not tell” is not one to break.

    Note, though, everything is said about good story telling, use of proper evocative language, strong active verbs and avoid passive, and other rules, can be broken in dialogues. Characters are not the writer, and they need to ‘speak’ the way everyday people do, and in the spoken language, oh my, we often, more than seldom, happily use and share joyfully all the -ly words in the mighty world 🙂

    In dialogues the rule is to be true to the character’s voice, not the writer’s voice. Thank the Lord, in dialogues we can break the “rules” freely 😉 and speak “plainly”.

    It also depends on the POV. If you are writing in the character’s POV: “She looks exhausted”, Julia thought.

    is “perfectly” expressed and “rightly so” 🙂

    But if you narrate…

    “Julia visited her friend, and she looked exhausted”

    then you are telling and not showing, and you hurt the story-telling. The writer should have spend more time and show that: Just a quick try:

    “Her hair was all over the place. One of the buttons in her blouse was undone and she had a dark shadow under her eyes no makeup could hide; the result of another long and sleepless night.”

    Wouldn’t you say the person above is exhausted and, as a reader, better able to visualize “the message” rather than simply be told: “she looked exhausted”?

    Happy re-visit your telling is part of the writer’s work even before sending the manuscript to your editor 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I eagerly read this advice, OR…. I paid attention to each word of advice in this editing article about adverbs, because although at times I overuse them, other times I rejoice in their ‘ly’ simplicity. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Do you know Chris one of the best bits about your site…
    If in doubt of where to turn
    in Chris’s place there’s much to learn.

    A bit twee or passé I know, but if you don’t find the answer/help you need there will be what you are looking for in one place… HERE ! and if it’s not, you will always come up trumps and point us weary wanderers in the right direction. For that I thank you. Um a round of applause or a prize should be in order at this point… but you wouldn’t expect or want another bit of ole toot on yer shelf and Well I’m a bit mean. Have a great day 😇😉😘

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Reblogged this on TINA FRISCO and commented:
    In Part 9 of her Editing 101 series on the The Story Reading Ape’s blog, Susan Uttendorfsky talks about cutting “ly” adverbs from our manuscripts, which will enhance scenes and add to the word count. “Rover sniffed excitedly, hot on the trail” or “Rover threw his head in the air and barked as he turned toward me, indicating that I should follow. At my first step he tore off ahead, sniffing the ground and wagging his tail, hot on the trail of the killer”? Head over and try your hand at rewriting one of Susan’s easy-way-out sentences…

    Liked by 3 people


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