Quick Fix: Are LY Words Ever OK?

Caught Using Excessive Adverbs

Caught Using Excessive Adverbs

My writing students are, on the whole, obedient sorts who implement my suggestions. They hear the standard show, don’t tell, avoid passive language, don’t head-hop and a lot of other “rules.” Many writers insist that rules are made to be broken. So what about those pesky “LY” words?

Writing Tip for Today: Is it ever OK to use LY words (adverbs)?

What’s an Adverb?

It’s important to understand what adverbs do (or don’t do) in prose. Adverbs modify, that is, they give added meaning to a verb. Many adverbs end in “ly.” They get a bad rap if they’re used repeatedly to modify weak verbs. Some examples: She walked slowly, he talked incessantly, we gathered yearly. Each of the “ly” words gives more specific info to the preceding verbs: walked, talked, gathered. My rule: If the verb is either nonspecific or passive (was, were, are, am), consider replacing the verb with a more specific, active verb and dropping the ly modifier.

Draft without Judgment

When you draft, don’t pay attention to the pesky adverbs, which may or may not appear in your writing. If you try to weed out the adverbs as you create, you might give your editor self (also known as Inner Critic) free rein to squash your creative flow. After you’ve put many hours of practice behind you, you may begin to draft using better word choices. If that happens, great. If not, remember that revision will always be waiting to rescue your writing from too many modifers. For some, it’s difficult to draft without the Inner Critic, but it’s possible. Tell yourself no one is ever going to see this awful draft. Tell yourself you’re just getting it roughed out. Tell yourself whatever you need to. Resist the urge to judge your early drafts! The reason? In my opinion, drafting without judgment not only results in higher word counts, it can also allow brilliant stuff from your solar plexus, your Muse or whatever you like to call it, to emerge. Inner Critic hates that!

Caveat Emptor

Last, in revision, I always remove the “ly” or adverb in question and read the sentence (aloud if possible) without it. If the sentence seems lacking, try a more specific word: instead of walked, maybe she TRUDGED, PLODDED or STROLLED. If the sentence uses a form of TO BE, try substituting an active verb. If you still don’t like how the sentence sounds when you read it aloud, the Adverb Police aren’t going to bust you. If you read master fiction writers, you’ll find them breaking all sorts of these rules from time to time. One or two “lys” shouldn’t doom your work to the reject pile, but over-reliance on any modifier can be risky. As The Elements of Style, that venerable handbook of good writing habits states, “Vigorous writing is concise.” If you use too many words (including lys) in your attempt to communicate a story, meaning is often muddied, confusing or even lost. Meaning, the ability to communicate exactly what you mean, should always be the goal, but without telling too much. Most of the time, weeding out “ly” words will provide a solid start to mastering strong writing.

Your Turn: Have you ever been taken to task (by a critique group or an editor) for using an occasional “ly” word? What was your reaction and what did you do?


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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