Every writing book I’ve read offers this bit of advice to help strengthen writing – eliminate adverbs. Today we will refresh our memories on what makes an adverb and explore why they should be avoided.
Let’s start by reviewing our adverb basics:
Put simply, an adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They can also be used to modify whole sentences and prepositional phrases. Clear as mud, I know. Let’s have some examples: (Adverbs are in bold. Words modified are italicized.)
- Modify a verb:
- She walked slowly.
- They ate quietly.
- Modify an adjective:
- He was incredibly handsome.
- The tree is very old.
- Modify another adverb:
- The dog ran very quickly down the street.
- Martha hugged her Grandma really tightly.
- Modify a whole sentence
- Obviously, he can’t have seen us.
- Modify a prepositional phrase
- They found the locket just under the bed.
Most adverbs are created by adding the -ly ending to an adjective.
- slowly, painfully, quickly, handsomely, strongly, etc.
However some do not, such as:
- still, well, never, fast, very, always, often, just.
Why do editors cringe when they see an adverb? Adverbs are red flags, they replace concrete descriptions or phrases with words that don’t hold real meaning. Let’s take a look:
Adverb-y writing: She badly needed a smoke. Slowly she peeked around the wall of her cubicle. Seeing no one, she quietly left the room.
We can do better than that.
Using visuals instead of adverbs: She needed a smoke bad enough that her hands shook. She stood on her toes to peek over the edge of her cubicle, no one was in the corridor. Carlton’s in hand, she slid off her high-heels and padded to the exit.
(The grammar police have caught me; I let two whoppers slip in my example. Had I known that thousands would read this I would have been more careful. First error – ‘bad’ should be ‘badly’ and, yes you guessed it, is an adverbial clause. Whoops! Also the Carltons somehow managed to get an unnecessary apostrophe. This writing thing is more difficult than it looks.)
Corrected ‘visual’ phrase: She craved a smoke. Standing on her toes, she peeked over the edge of the cubicle and saw the corridor was empty. Carltons in hand, she slid off her high-heels and padded to the exit.
Do you see the difference? We went from ordinary to interesting by switching the adverbs for concrete images.
You can do it too!
Material for adverb usage courtesy of EnglishClub.com
To see past Grammarland posts go here.
(Added later: This post is an extreme example of ridding writing of weak adverbs to make it stronger. I’m not advocating the elimination of all adverbs. My goal is to find ways people can use to make writing better.)
I’m not OVERLY adverse to adverbs. Unless they are GROSSLY overdone. : )
tHIS IS A TEST
lol @ Nancy!
Grumble. Beaten to the punch. You got to get up mighty early to beat Florida and Johannesburg.
Well written, Jodi.
And wonderful graphics, Jo!
Obviously, I realize that I use far too many apparently useless adverbs. I will try, willingly, to make them disappear completely from my blogging; however, that quite possibly will be absolutely impossible! Don’t you, like, totally agree? Thankfully, I read this post. Hopefully I will take heed of your excellently offered advice.
Yowsa! That’s a mess of adverbs! : )
A wing and a tongue to both of you! ;-P
I can always count on you to drive my message home – you had way too much fun writing that. Thanks Paula!
Oh, and a wink and a tongue to you, too! ;-P
Thanks for the ADvice. I love how cheesy I can be 🙂
“Carlton’s in hand, she slid off her high-heels and padded to the exit.”
That would be the cigarette brand she prefers. Thanks for stopping by!
My mom used to smoke Carlton’s! : )
Low, low, low tar . . . like inhaling lightly polluted air instead of sucking in smokestacks!
Yes, but – you’ve got a grocer’s apostrophe in there. The name of the brand is “Carlton” (I did a Google image search to make sure), so there definitely should not be an apostrophe. Unless she was borrowing some guy Carlton’s pack, in which case the sentence is incomplete.
Also … while your example is much more descriptive, and in essence is more enjoyable writing, in point of fact it’s not correct. “She needed a smoke bad enough”: “bad” here is used improperly, and to be grammatically correct should be (ironically) an adverb – “badly”. The next sentence is a run-on: perhaps it could be “She stood on her toes to peek over the edge of her cubicle, and was relieved to see no one in the corridor.” (Or She stood on her toes to peek over the edge of her cubicle. No one was in the corridor, so, Carltons in hand…” There are any number of constructions.
Good luck to you!
I fixed it this morning after receiving several notes from the grammar police, should read better now.
Great post, and great fix. One question: “padded” doesn’t appear to match any dictionary definition in this sentence, creatively (ok, couldn’t help myself).
Sent from my iPod
I like your rewritten version of the cubicle events! Question though… are there any times you would advocate for keeping adverbs?
It’s the same with any writing “rule”, once you understand why it is there and how it affects the writing you can choose when to apply it. My characters don’t know about the adverb rule and tend to use them in their speech. My narrator, however, uses them as little as possible.
The same goes for run-on sentences and punctuation – it depends on who is talking. Since I write in my own voice, I write like I talk. Like you, however, when I use another character’s voice, well, they tend to have better grammar! (Unlike that sentence…can’t understand, though how I TOTALLY left out the adverbs! Whoops…
The same goes for run-on sentences and punctuation – it depends on who is talking. Since I write in my own voice, I write like I talk. Like you, however, when I use another character’s voice, well, they tend to have better grammar! (Unlike that sentence…can’t understand, though, how I TOTALLY left out the adverbs! Whoops…
i never thought about this before! thanks for sharing. 🙂
Thanks for refreshing my memory. After all of that I realize that I’m an adverb nut! Didn’t realize I used it so much…but it makes everything that more intense! 🙂
This was interesting to read. Thanks! I’m an aspiring writer myself but I never read anything about avoiding adverbs. Thanks again.
this is going to affect the way I write.
This is something for me indeed. My native language is not English. However this is the language I learned at a university.
Perhaps you would like to go to my page? and give me your insight about my English writing? hehehe.
Thanks for sharing this. I will definitely (whoops did I just use an “adverb”?) take this into account.
Ah, I love grammar posts! I’ve never really heard of the need to eliminate adverbs, but your example really illustrates the difference.
Wow great tips! Thanks so much for making it so clear. 🙂
I have a bad habit of over using these. Thanks for the advice!
I admit, I’m often guilty of employing utterly defuct adverbs in my writing… I shall endeavour to avoid them more diligently 🙂 from now on!
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I read the same books. I hear the same advice. I watch my writing with the same educated eye for adverbial sins. Then I read The Great Gatsby…many “classic” novels violate the writing improvement industry standards. Yet, I defer to the modern and refrain from adverbs…reluctantly.
Although I have eliminated the word “very” from my vocabulary (this was not due to the book you noted, but a quotation by Mark Twain), but I have not given up on using adverbs. This has more to do with my narrator than writing conventions. Since I have a lean more toward stories told in first person, I try to mimic speech in the narrative. Replacing all adverbs in this context seems a bit silly.
This was an interesting read =) I’ll have to look through more of your posts now..
I know I’m guilty of overusing adverbs. And I call myself a writer…. =( I’ll try to watch that from now on!
I really, meticulously, painstakingly try to avoid adverbs :p. I’ve been into your site for a while, as a fellow English lover, and enjoyed your last post about everyday flash fiction. I run a flash fiction site at akashio.wordpress.com and focus on writing exercises, too. I’m blogrolling you and if you ever need exposure, just let me know and I’ll be glad to give your site a post. Take care and keep writing!
Thanks for dropping by – I’ll stop by your site soon and check it out.
I think you will find that Stephen King shares your sentiment. There’s a section in his book “On Writing” that condemns the evil adverb.
Myself, I think that they can be used cautiously. Absolute avoidance of adverbs creates wordiness, but dependence on them (I agree) creates dull simplicity.
Thank you for sharing!
Concrete meaning. Makes sense : ). I love learning how to improve on writing. Thanks for sharing.
Good Job’s thank you
“Tips dan Trik Dunia Internet”
I am certainly going to use this lesson in the summer school curriculum I’m making for my grandniece. I think she’ll enjoy it, since it’s on the computer.
[Blush] Wow, thanks – I hope she likes it!
This was a really great read. Thanks!
thank you for this post!
It’s highly useful, or should I say it’s useful that I want to change all my adverbs from now on to concrete images!
(please correct my mistakes, English isn’t my mother tongue…)
Sounds alright to me – keep up the good work!
i love the cat that you put as your picture is that your cat
i love the cat that you put as your picture is that your cat and the name is coco
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Awesome! Thanks! Will go back and edit now! 😉
A blogger after my own heart, though I do let the occasional adverb slip.
Question: If editors hate adverbs, why do so many show up in books? I’ve cringed reading bestsellers because of the rampant adverb abuse.
Or is that just me being jealous?
Established authors know they have a market and don’t get edited as heavily as those starting out, at least it sure doesn’t seem like it. The rest of us need to keep our adverbs sparse. I still find myself writing them all the time. Most get edited out later.
HA! Awesome. And why do many adverbs show up in books? Because many people that write books shouldn’t be given the title of “author” these days. Good authors are rare. Good editors are rare. Therefore adverbs are in abundance.
And everyday I face my computer I pray that I will be one of the good ones, sigh.
Thanks for the share, I feel like it will make me a much more powerful writer taking this to heart.
Thank you for posting this! 🙂
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My main issue with adverbs is the way they’re losing their tails in speech. It’s all too common to hear something along the lines of, “by running quick, he got there real fast.”
Akkk! It makes me cringe to read that. What is happening to our beautiful language?
To be fair, the “she needed a smoke so bad that…” in your example is exactly the same as that.
Or it would be, if I could read. I’ll try again.
“To be fair, the “She needed a smoke bad enough that…” in your example is the same as that.”
There we go.
I did return and fix that little oopsie. It should read better now.
I completely agree. Overuse of adverbs is the hallmark of bad writing. I cringe every time I see one.
(If anyone’s ever read Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” even he, arguably one of the best writers of all time, warns against the use of adverbs. )
I’m guilty here… I always have to take my red pen and go over and over to eliminate them. Yet there are those somehow manage to survive!!! I think I’ll print out your post and pin it somewhere (perhaps my forehead?!) where I can see all the time…
May I recommend tape for your forehead? Perhaps a sticky note… During the draft writing process I don’t worry about using them, it’s while I edit that they come under the knife. Leaving a few is alright.
This is a GREAT post. Thanks for the lesson!
I’m now re-reading all of the book reviews I’ve put on my blog, searching for adverbs. Damn…I really suck at writing, it seems…:S
Using adverbs does not automatically equal sucky writing. It does mean that there is room for improvement, and improvement is always a good thing! No one look too closely at my other posts; I use them plenty in blog writing where things are more casual.
Good blog, I believe it was Stephen King who said “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – It is something I watch out, I had the good luck of reading King’s book ‘On Writing’ before I started writing, so that rule of not using adverbs went straight into my head right away 🙂
If you’re on a hunt for adverbs, I recommend you check out the AutoCrit Editing Wizard.
It’s great at telling you when you have too many — and doesn’t hassle you if you use them sparingly.
That sounds awesome! I’ll have to check it out.
Personally, I find adverbs to be one of the funnier parts of Mad Libs.
Perhaps you could pen the first Mad Lib novel.
Thanks for this reminder. I agree that a conscientious writer must work hard to eliminate adverbs. It takes time and a constant awareness for stimuli and for me, these are embedded in everything around us. As simple as shredded blooms carpeting grass imply endings. The contrast of petals and downfeathers dancing over car tops in a traffic jam speaks of speed possible beyond steel engines. I can go and on. I used to be guilty of letting ‘evil adverbs’ rule my writing but I vowed to exorcise them–I was put to trial and found guilty in writing classes I attended in New York–although I admit when off my guard, they slip in once in a while.
Eloquently put, thanks for sharing! (Yes – that was an adverb right there!)
I think adverbs show up when the writer is getting lazy, as when a musician fumbles a bar or an athlete turns over the ball or puck. Mental mistakes. If you find adverbs creeping in, it’s time to put the manuscript down for a little while.
I believe every writer needs to be reminded of this rule.
There is “Conjunction Junction” and “Unpack Your Adjectives”, yet no Schoolhouse Rock that I remember dedicated to the adverb. Perhaps that is why they are so bothersome.
adverbs make me think of the most is mad libs in school we would always play them
writers use all different types of literature
Aw, I love adverbs. However, this is a great refresher.
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That was a timely help (ooops…’timely’ is an adverb too !), just when I was confessing about lacking writing skills 🙂
No ,I think it’s an adjective here ?
Time to take Grammar classes again ! 😦
Yep, it’s an adjective in that sentence. I’m still figuring all the technical stuff out, by the time I get it straight the rules will have changed. (‘Still’ is an adverb, drat!)
Ooh, thank you for this post! It’s a great reminder!
I’ve heard the adverbs are evil. My opinion is that they’re only evil if they’re used as a crutch. Yes, if you employ more than two adverbs per page, you’re probably overdoing it. But I don’t believe in killing them all. In your example, you more than doubled your word count when you eliminated the adverbs. DOUBLED. As an editor, that makes my head spin (largely because I see novels from first time writers who think it’s OK to submit a manuscript with 150,000+ words). I don’t think adverbs should be eliminated completely but I also don’t think they should be used as a lazy short cut. Moderation. That’s the ticket.
I’m with you, Andy. Sometimes an adverb is what’s needed. It’s like saying never eat sugar. Boring.
And if one were asked about their sugar intake, and the answer was not all-or-none, wouldn’t one have to use an adverb?
“Please describe your sugar intake.”
“I have it occasionally in coffee.”
“I sometimes put it in coffee.”
“I only put sugar on grapefruit, which I eat once or twice every couple of months.”
This is where we must walk the fine line of what must be included and what is fluff. I meant to add a note about using strong verbs instead of adverb crutches. Perhaps in a future post.
I’m a teacher (French & Spanish) and my kids don’t even know what an adverb modifies. They learn it in French or Spanish class.
Nice! I’m a brazilian guy and I do not know too much about english literature. However I can say that using concrete images the text is more interesting than with adverbs. J.K. Rowling wrote like that.
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I’d like to say that this was the first bit of advice I got as an aspiring writer. But no, first I had to have about a third of my novel written and countless blogs before this bit of wisdom made it over my direction.
Hopefully other budding writers can happen upon your blog and find this gem of advice. It has helped me improve, immensely. 😉
The biggest epiphany since learning english.
Great post. I avoid adverbs, but sometimes they worm their way in.
Um…. those are still adverbials (adverb phrases). In addition, the first sentence is just grammatically incorrect because you used the adjective form instead of the adverb form. Are you really that scared of an -ly?
She needed a smoke badly enough that her hands shook. (That whole last phrase, “badly enough that her hands shook” is an adverbial.)
You are totally right – I went back and made a few changes. Progress not perfection!
Stumbled onto our blog through ‘freshly pressed’. I love this post because the incorrect/overuse of ‘hopefully’ is on my Top 10 Pet Peeve list (‘literally’ is v close behind).
Very informative, we typically do not pay much attention to the way we write… See, just used it here. Anyway, your post serves as a reminder to people like myself!
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nicely done. 🙂
wow! no teacher ever mentioned this to us ,…hmmmm maybe I was absent when one did. he he kiddin’……thanks a lot!
Very good advice. I think i can be adverb heavy. My husband and I were just talking about it the other day. I’ll have to show him this entry
I say “Bah!” to the rulebooks, I happen to be fond of adverbs. Though, I suspect they have a happier home in verbal communication than on the printed page.
Whichever rules you choose to follow, or throw out, best wishes in your endeavors!
I tend to use really way to much, but i think my editor does a great job of picking up on these things.
It really is hard to get out of the habit of using adverbs but it does make a sentence flow better if they are removed
When I started using adjectives and adverbs in primary school, my marks shot skyward, so I still use them. The thing that I can’t stand is people using adjectives as adverbs:
“How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks.”
That seems to be the most common one, but …ly words seem to have almost disappeared in everyday conversation.
I happened to pass by this post and later on watch “Alex Reads Twilight” on YouTube. Turns out Stephanie Meyer used words such as “non-committedly”. How on Earth can you nod non-committedly?
Anyhow, this was a nice read. I will be sure to link it onwards!
I couldn’t read past the first Twilight book. It drove me nuts.
Your brief essay raise my interests on the matter. Thank you!
This is like the Dogme film-rules: refreshing but not something to live by. It’s not necessary to ban adverbs. To advocate this diminishes the language and makes writing less diverse and interesting.
Well, this is very good advice for a young writer. I like the way you write, too. But aren’t adverbs there for when a writer can’t find the words??? Thankyou. Great post!! 🙂
Absolutely lovely 🙂
Interesting. I did not know anything about this. Poor adverbs.
Currently reading the new Ian McEwan novel ‘Solar’ – and since reading this blog entry I’ve been keeping an eye out for adverbs. He uses quite a few…but his writing is still brilliant.
That was a great post! Congrats on being featured on WordPress.
thanks for the advice! I enjoyed your illustration!
This is great, well written and clearly explained.
VERY informative. 🙂 Thank you.
Hello EVERYBODY! This has been a wild ride. Thanks for stopping by, I’ve loved reading all of your thoughts about adverbs. I think I answered all the questions, if I missed yours let me know.
In the next few days and weeks I’ll try to stop by your blogs and say hi, it might take a while but I’d love to see what everyone is up to!
I never noticed how boring adverbs were before now.
You must be thrilled with the wonderful responses! Congratulations on striking such a sensitive nerve and waking us all to our adverbial senses. I’m going to work on eliminating “very” from my blogs…difficult for me, but worth it. I reread a couple of my posts and felt the red creeping up my neck! Gracious me! I shouldn’t say reread, however, as that was the first time I had read them! Shame on me! And again…congratulations. As Scarlett used to say, “I’m positively pea-green with envy!”
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OMG- I had no idea one is supposed to avoid adverbs!!! I will have to completely re-program my brain now…lol….
I don’t agree; as well as clearing up ambiguity or conveying additional information (as you’ve since acknowledged in your edits), adverbs can also serve a narrative purpose, even when a writer overloads a paragraph with them – it’s not necessarily interesting, but it’s easier to read, allowing the reader to assimilate information quickly.
To elaborate: perhaps you don’t [i]want[/i] the reader to pause for thought, to really get a sense of the scene you had intended, or to delve into heavily-descriptive prose for that paragraph? Why is it important to the reader to really stop and think what your character was feeling when she left her desk for a crafty fag break? Why not use the momentum of a quick, short, adverb-laden paragraph to carry the reader along with your character as she slips out of her office and off to whatever exciting events are to ensue when she leaves the room? Maybe she gets caught by her supervisor? Maybe Jim from Accounts gives her a cheeky smile that causes her to blush? Maybe a bomb goes off? Only you know, but it’s bound to be more interesting than her just nipping out for a cigarette.
Or maybe you DID want to linger on that paragraph, because maybe it’s important to the story after all – maybe she’s trying to quit smoking and this is her moment of weakness? Or maybe nothing at all happens, and she’s left to reflect on how this is the highlight of her day? (That might be a fun idea, actually; you could spread the “leaving the room” part over a couple of pages, turning it into a blow-by-blow account of how she pulled it off.)
Either way, it’s easy to denigrate adverbs as a careless or lifeless way for a writer to avoid giving a proper description – “they replace concrete descriptions or phrases with words that don’t hold real meaning”, as you say – but unless you’re skilful enough to have set the scene with everything you need for your reader to process what’s coming up, your reader may have already visualised this woman’s office (for example) in some detail, and may not appreciate you stopping to “redraw” something for them if you hadn’t set the scene with sufficient care.
(This is especially true if you’re providing a lovingly-crafted description about something that turns out to be inconsequential to the bigger picture, but still jars the reader out of their flow; for instance, had you established that she was wearing heels, or that the floor was hard enough to make a sound if she didn’t take them off? Do we already know she smokes? Do we know she smokes Carltons? Will the reader automatically know those are cigarettes? Have you carelessly abandoned something you’ve already described her as holding when she came in?)
Adverbs are useful because they’re usually “compatible” with whatever image the reader has already formed, and so shouldn’t always be dismissed in favour of providing a “better” description.
I believe you can trowel on the adverbs with abandon, as long as you know what you’re doing. If you want to take the story outside with this woman, and not linger on how she got out, I don’t see much wrong with your “short and to the point” adverb-laden first example. Conversely, if you really want us to get a feel for the scene, if it’s really important to describe “woman going for a smoke”, I think you can pile adverbs on top of each other willy-nilly and achieve the same effect. For instance:
Time seemed to be moving even more slowly than usual today. She listlessly drummed her fingers on her desk. God, she needed a smoke right now. She never usually wanted a cigarette this badly; the craving was almost painfully strong. She briefly considered just lighting up right there in her cubicle – maybe nobody would notice? – but decided against it. She had to get out of there.
Just five minutes. Nobody would miss her for five minutes.
Slowly, she peeked around the wall of her cubicle, inching out gradually, just in case someone came past unexpectedly and she had to quickly sit down again, pretending to concentrate on whatever thankless, boring task she was supposed to be doing, smiling inanely until they went away. She prayed silently that this wouldn’t be one of those times.
Luckily, the coast was clear. She’d been through this routine often enough to know that if she was going to make her move, she had to make it fast. There was no time for indecision. Quietly, she stood up and moved stealthily towards the door.
This is riddled with adverbs and no concrete descriptions at all, yet I think it’s just as effective (albeit several times longer) as the “reworked” example you gave. The overloading of adverbs has changed the narrative voice, nudging it closer to a first person perspective (and providing more urgency in the process), but I think it does the job.
You are right. As with all writing advice, the advice to reduce or eliminate adverbs is to be used at the discretion of the writer. As an experienced writer, you show a solid understanding of pace and flow. You know when the narrative needs to move along and when it should slow to delve deeper into the psyche of the characters or details of a location.
I stand by my advice. In most of my reading I find adverbs used as a crutch. Instead of seeking out the right verb, the writer uses a modifier. It is this kind of adverb usage that weakens writing.
Writing any advice in absolute terms invites discussion with those who disagree and all benefit – especially me.
Thanks for your well thought out presentation on adverb usage!
I don’t think I will stop using them, but this is an interesting article. The best thing about writing is being able to make the same meaning in 500 different constructions. Thanks for your ideas.
I took the opportunity to visit this blog as a result of the “wordy” picture. I think this is a great blog about writing! The information is valuable input. As a mental health therapist, I am submitting to you a piece of informaiton which you might find worthwhile. From a cognitive perspective, we tend to disambiguate through prosody and syntax with a high matrix attachment to the adverbial phrase. That being said, the use of adverbs may represent a significant mediator to interpretation and understanding. Also, are you familiar with Danel Handler’s book entitled Adverbs? A fun and thoughtful read, it is one of my favorite, and all about adverbs. Thanks for your blog! The Conversant Counselor, Paulette Jackson
I’ll have to look that book up – thanks for the suggestion and the information!
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Love it! I am an adverb addict…and a nicotine addict (not for long, hopefully – I’m hoping my blog will help that!), so I feel lucky to have found you blog.
great advice – I am guilty of overusing adverbs:)
Ah, as an editor I know just how irritating the little buggers can be. Informative post!
I wonder if this could be linked the advice often given to writers/would-be writers, ‘show, don’t tell.’
I think that fiction that laden with adverbs can feel a little ‘top heavy’. I also think that non standard grammar in fiction – particularly minor sentences and a lack of adverbs – is very much ‘in vogue’ right now. Which sort of brings me back to the ‘show, don’t tell’ theory…
I consider adverbs (especially as a crutch) one of the principle ways that writers end up doing far more ‘telling’ than they realize. They are directly linked. Thanks for stopping by!
Great information. I have to confess that I am an adverb lover.
Since being enlightened, I’ve tried to be very conscious about my adverb usage.
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Thanks for sharing such a nice information.
Stimulating read, althoug it can be argued both sides. A bit like talking love spells in the heart of a meticulous paper.
I’ve just written my first blog entry (another review) since I read this post; and the whole time I kept thinking to myself ‘adverbs, adverbs, adverbs, adverbs!!!!’ What have you done to me?!?!?!?!?!
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My pleasure; thanks for such an interesting post…
I’m researching people willing to be interviewed for an article regarding the occult and love spells.
Please contact me if you have had any experience with spell casters, good or bad.
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Great post keep up the good work
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