Foggy Writing Warning: Dialog tag adverbs? You don’t need them!

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We’re launching a new regular feature, “Foggy Writing Warning,” with veteran editor Don McNair, author of “Editor-Proof Your Writing.” Foggy writing can ruin your chances of getting published. Every week, McNair will share his expert tips on how to self-edit your fiction manuscript to clear up foggy writing and produce sparkling copy that will attract agents, editors, publishers, readers, and sales.


by Don McNair

Back in my newbie years I heard someplace that I should eliminate –ly words—adverbs that qualify our characters’ utterances—from dialogue tags. I had no idea why, but that was the common advice, so I accepted it.  Later, I realized my writing was sharper.  But why would that be?  Years later, while writing dialogue for a scene, the reason hit me.  It can be explained by two words: author intrusion.

To illustrate, consider this sentence, which is indicative of many writing samples from unpublished writers:

“I’ll advise you to stop doing that,” he said, angrily.

How do we know he said this angrily?  Well, the author told us!  After the character said his line, the author poked his reader’s shoulder and said, “That thing the character said?  It was said in an angry manner.  I just wanted you to know that.”

Here’s a more vivid explanation.  You’ve just taken your seat at a theatre on opening night.  The lights dim and the curtain opens on two actors.  The female actor steps forward and says, “John, I wish you hadn’t done that.”

The theatre lights go bright and the director bounds onto the stage, waving his arms.  He stares at the audience.  “That thing the character said?  I just wanted you to know it was said in an angry manner.  Do we all understand that?”  Satisfied that we do, he disappears behind the curtain and the actors again take their places.  John says, “Well, it wasn’t my fault,” and that director prances back onto the stage to tell us John was miffed, perhaps even a bit petulant.

Could you settle in and enjoy that play?

What’s the solution?  The way our sample dialogue is now, with those –ly words, the author is telling us how the lines were said.  Let’s let the characters themselves show us their frames of mind, perhaps like this:

“I’ll advise you to stop doing that.”  His hands formed fists at his sides.

Let’s look at another way to show the character’s feelings.  Consider this dialogue:

“Don’t you think we’d better stop?” she asked, anxiously.

There’s that author again, telling us how a characters thinks.  What’s another way to show she said her line anxiously?  Well, we can alter what she says so that there’s no question, and no need for the author to butt in.  Perhaps like this:

“My God, shouldn’t we stop?”

Author intrusion is only one problem with using –ly words.  Redundancy is another.  The above quote uses an adverb (the –ly word), a frequently seen redundancy.  If someone said, “Now, now” to you, wouldn’t you immediately classify it as a mild statement?  Do we really need an outsider—the author—to tell us it was, by telling us it was said mildly?  We are being told twice, and that makes it a redundancy.

The adverb adds nothing, and in fact detracts from our story involvement.  If a quote seems to need an –ly word, change the quote so that it doesn’t.  Edit the above example to:  “Now, now,” he said.

Here’s another example:

“It’s none of your business!” she said hotly. 

That exclamation mark says she was hot, doesn’t it?  Change this to:

“It’s none of your business!” she said.

Where possible, leave out the dialogue tag completely.  This is true especially when there’s a rapid-fire exchange between characters, like this:

“It’s none of your business!”

“Now, Betty, I was only asking…”

“You men.  You come in here and…”

Is there any question about who said what?  Or how they said it?

Adverbs are frequently overused in non-quoted material and often are redundant.  Compare this sentence:

Amy quickly jumped up. 

With this one:

Amy jumped up.

The latter is stronger, don’t you think?  Besides, how could one jump slowly?  Aha!  Another form of redundancy.

One more:

She quickly jerked the hat off her head.

Compare that with:

She jerked the hat off her head.

Or, better yet:

She jerked off her hat.

More action, less fog.

Bottom line?  Use your word processor’s search tool to find “ly” dialogue tags and rewrite the dialogue so it doesn’t need it.  It’s that simple!

Don McNair is a professional editor and the author of ten published novels and nonfiction books. His latest book is “Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave,” available from Quill Driver Books.

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