Alexej Behnisch

Write better without adverbs

‘Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.’ Mark Twain said.


We think and speak in fragments, not full sentences:

‘So, erm, John, my friend, he bought a car, and, you know, it has a blue colour.’

Average writers tidy it up a little:

‘John, my friend, bought a car, which has a blue colour.’

Good writers go for efficiency:

‘My friend John bought a blue car.’


Good writing has high information density, without reading dense.

Maximum info in minimum words, while sounding human.

It’s an art. Nobody’s perfect at it.


Writers sell words. Readers buy them in a currency called attention.

If words don’t offer value, readers won’t pay attention and stop reading.

Value can be business or pleasure. People read to learn or be entertained. The best writing combines both.


Scientists have a natural advantage over novelists: real-world facts already contain valuable information.

The challenge is to find the essence and eliminate the fluff.

Many overwrite their papers with empty words.

Picture a math prof who wants to say 1+1=2 but writes:


Don’t be that writer.


Delete Adverbs

Stephen King:

‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs.’


Adverbs are modifiers of verbs.

In the sentence ‘I run slowly’, the adverb ‘slowly’ modifies the verb ‘run’.

Most adverbs end with -ly. But not all: ‘I run fast.’

Here is an exercise. Underline all adverbs in your last text.

Common ones like ‘very’ and ‘really’ you can delete immediately.


Mark Twain again:

‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’


Consider this sentence:

‘He ran really fast to school.’

Delete ‘really’. The result: ‘He ran fast to school’, which sounds factual but boring.


We use adverbs to add emphasis to verbs.

To exaggerate, imagine a lot of adverbial emphasis:

‘He ran really very super fast to school.’

We get the point. But it sounds like a child.

Kids have a limited vocabulary.

They don’t know many verbs and rely on a few common verbs to which they add or subtract emphasis with a few common adverbs.

Bad writers and foreign-language beginners do the same.


Tackle the Verb

Solution 1: Delete weak adverbs like ‘very’ and ‘really’.

Solution 2: Choose stronger adverbs.

Both steps already improve your text very much tremendously.

Solution 3 is even better: Tackle the weak verb.

Use a stronger verb. Then no adverb needs to strengthen the weak verb.


‘He ran very fast to school.’

Solution 1: ‘He ran fast to school.’

Solution 2: ‘He ran briskly / swiftly to school.’

Solution 3: ‘He sprinted to school.’ To run fast = to sprint.


For more emphasis to the verb, add data or a metaphor.

‘He sprinted 2 minutes to school.’

‘He drove 50 km/h in a 30 zone.’


A basic rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell.

Go for figures of speech, also known as metaphors.

‘He sprinted like Usain Bolt to school.’

‘He flew like a rocket to school.’


The choice of metaphor reflects your personality and connection to the reader. It makes writing unique.


‘The stock market declined very much.’ (weak adverb)

‘The stock market declined dramatically.’ (stronger adverb, but overused)

‘The stock market collapsed.’ (stronger verb)

‘The stock market fell to the ground.’ (metaphor)

‘The stock market fell by 18%.’ (data)

Pick the shortest, strongest verb, add precise data, or paint a picture.


98.25% of adverbs are evil. Approximately.

Exceptions prove the rule!

Sometimes, a strong adverb adds spicy flavour.

But make it a conscious choice.