Ten Rules in Ten Days - Rule 4: Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."

Elmore Leonard's fourth rule is, Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

Elmore Leonard is one of those writers who subscribe to the “no adverb” philosophy. For those of you who don’t remember what an adverb is, it’s what I call an “ly” word; a word that ends in “ly” used to modify a verb. I generally try to follow this rule, although once in a while I’ll toss one in. Sometimes, it’s important, most of the time it’s not. (By “ly” word, I don’t mean, of course, every word that ends in “ly.” For example, unfortunately, or timely, etc.)

For the most part, whenever a character says something , we should be able to determine how it was said from the context. If the author has done his job, we can tell whether something was said bitterly, or warily, or grimly, or gayly. To read this modifier after “said” causes us to slow down. We have to go back and read the phrase again trying to imagine how it might sound if said according to the modifier. Does it sound differently than the first time you read it? It shouldn’t, if the author has done it correctly.

Leonard also says to avoid adverbs in general. Why? Because it’s telling, not showing.

Is it better for me to write that something was brightly lit, or to write that there were five spotlights shining on it?

What if I wrote that a room was grimly appointed? What does that mean? Can you picture it? Probably not. But if I wrote that dirty gray wallpaper covered the walls, a brown carpet, matted and stained, occupied the middle of the room, and one lone lamp with a forty-watt bulb provided the only light, you ’d have a good idea what the place was like.

Just as with rule No. 3, some genres tolerate adverbs better than others. More serious literature will avoid them, or nearly so. I challenge you to find one in Cormac McCarthy. Romance and chick-lit are much more tolerant of them, although the good writers will keep them under control.

Go through your writing and look for adverbs. Then think of a way to get rid of them and show what you were telling us.