You can instantly improve your writing by deleting adverbs from your dialogue.
Here at Emerald Books, some editing processes are so necessary and done so frequently that they are pretty much automated. One of these is removing adverbs (any modifiers or commentary, really) from dialogue. We’re not talking about the character’s actual speech, but the attribution tags that organize the conversation.
When writing dialogue, the best approach is to simply step aside and let the characters interact. If the characters need to speak to each other, then let them! If their speech isn’t conveying enough information from the scene, then it should be rewritten. If a character is excited, that should be obvious from what they are saying. If the author needs to step in and add an intensifier to the attribution tag, it shows that the dialogue isn’t really working.
“Wow! Lighting struck my house!”
The information is already exciting and the exclamation points indicate the tone and emotion of the speech succinctly. Adding the tag:
Tom said excitedly.
just gets in the way of the story as conveyed by the dialogue. What’s more, the author is committing the unforgivable sin of treating the reader like they’re stupid and can’t follow the story without constant repetitive reinforcement.
A good first pass editing process that feels mostly automated for us is just deleting all the adverbs from dialogue. This can be hard for first-time authors who want to make sure their writing conveys the nuance of the scene. The author has an impulse to insert their voice into every element of the book, but it’s a classic example of over-writing: when the author’s work sabotages the flow of the story.
If reinforcing your dialogue with adverbs is the hill you want to die on as a writer, check out this extensive dictionary of Tom Swifties, a type of joke based on adverbs in dialogue.
These jokes are a lot of fun and they convey perfectly how adverbs in attribution tags force additional meaning into dialogue and make dialogue confusing.
It’s scary for any writer to just step back and get out of the way, but it is absolutely essential to crafting naturalistic dialogue and giving your characters a sense of realism. You know that feeling when you are reading and you just get swept away by the story? Deleting your adverbs is a great way to build that feeling. The reader can sense when your characters have freedom, and that’s important to that rush of getting carried away by a story. If authors are constantly babysitting their characters (and by extension the reader) by reinforcing stuff with adverbs, the scene feels forced and highly controlled. Ultimately, why have dialogue at all when the author can just sum it up afterwards? When an author learns to get out of the way during dialogue, they can focus on the artistry of writing. How does each character speak? Do they all sound the same? Is one highly educated? Does one ramble? Does another character love to make jokes at inappropriate times? This kind of emotional character work will add depth to the characters and their interactions, while an adverb can only give instructions on what a reader should feel. Let your characters run wild and see what they have to say to each other!
I hope you like this rule of thumb. And hey, if you feel you can use adverbs in dialogue successfully, we’d love to know the secret to your weird magic. Let us know!