Use Plain Said; Cut the “ly” words

Our elementary school writing teachers spent a great deal of time getting us to add interesting tag words to our writing.

“Help. The house is on fire,” John said excitedly.

“Just what we needed,” Eric shouted angrily.

Esther whispered dejectedly as she wiped her tears, “I am at the bottom of my barrel.”

The expert advice I’ve read says, “Use plain said.” Other words distract readers and take them out of your story (which you don’t want).  Distracting words are: uttered, whispered, shouted, repeated, stormed, chuckled, laughed, answered, or others that mean said.

Choose words for your dialogue that show the emotion.  Put words in your character’s mouth that would come from someone feeling that emotion.  What would your character say if he was excited?

To show “excitedly,” add a beat to your manuscript. A beat is writer’s jargon for action. Add action to show the emotion of your characters. What would your character do if he was excited? Add it to your manuscript.

Check your manuscript. Many times your dialogue already contains words that describe the emotion and then you added the “ly” word. Cut the “ly” words.  These “ly” words are telling words.  Replace your “ly” words with dialogue and action to show the emotion.

Here are three sources that explain using simple dialogue tags and leaving out adverbs in more detail.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison.


Please share your comments, questions, and/or resources below. I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading my blog.

Joan Y. Edwards, Author/Illustrator

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Copyright © 2010 Joan Y. Edwards. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Use Plain Said; Cut the “ly” words”

  1. Joan,

    Learn and unlearn. Use and abuse. Confusing? Yes, but we can do it! Thanks for the reminder to leave off “ly” words in tags and most anywhere else for that matter.

    Keep encouraging writers and writing for kids.

    Linda A.

    1. Dear Linda, Thanks for leaving your encouraging words. That’s true, we’re having to learn and unlearn about adverbs with tags. You’re right we can do it. May your writing take wings to fly to a publisher who wants to buy it.

      Joan Y. Edwards

  2. Hi Joan,

    I remember those days when what mattered was the amount of vocabulary we could produce :-). Funnily enough I came across an Enid Blyton stort recently and found it full of adverbs. It’s not solong ago since characters hissed and spat their words, chortled and chuckled. Some still do.

    However I’m afraid we sometimes throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rules are meant to be broken. No point in swapping a good adverb for a nonsense action just for the sake of it.

    And in a bad mood at the end of the day, I’ve been known to hiss. But if your character is doing it, just make sure he uses enough sibilants in his dialogue. 🙂

    1. Dear Annie, Thank you very much for stopping by and leaving your comment filled with wisdom and humor. You have me laughing with your funnily. You’re right we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We need to have action that would be necessary and meaningful for the characters to come to life. Otherwise, we make it a melodrama of exaggeration and little reality. I’d love to see more of your writing. I’ll have to check out your blogspot. Do something good for yourself today.
      Joan Y. Edwards

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