Tag Archives: adverbs

Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

Kristen Lamb just hit me over the head. I’ve been contemplating an issue with my fiction writing lately, namely the balance between “poetic” description (of scenes, characters’ appearance, sex, etc.) and maintaining straight-forward clarity to allow my reader to build her own visual as the story unfolds.

Often I think I’m illuminating my reader, when merely I’ve employed “qualifiers”—See below why qualifying is akin to spoon-feeding the reader.

Sure, we’ve all been transported by lush, decorative (adjective-heavy) explorations of setting and of senses awakened (and wouldn’t we love to leave such a lasting impression on our beloved reader?)

And not so coincidentally, there have been fast-moving stories, tightly wrought and to the point, and when we put the book down, we walked away with a firm idea of character and place, without the author ever having spelled it out. How can we, as fiction writers, achieve balance?

As Lamb points out, “Editors are like engineers. We look at a writer’s race car (the manuscript) and look for parts that will cause drag, slow down momentum, or cause so much friction that a fiery crash or a dead engine is inevitable.” Those superfluous words slow the reader down—the adverbs and qualifiers, and nasty instances of showing instead of telling—amount to treating the reader “like a moron,” Lamb says in her post, Deadly Sin #7.

Lamb throws us a bone, bless her; “I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common
problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful.”

Let’s look at highlights from Kristen Lamb’s post:

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

Here is a news flash. Not all adverbs are evil…just most of them. Adverbs are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the
character is angry, frustrated, upset.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene.

Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

What are your thoughts? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you?

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Lamb’s methods teach you how to make building your author platform fun. She helps writers change approach, not personality.


Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

Improve your writing by slashing adverbs–Here’s how

Today’s educational and enlightening guest post is from the creative mind at My Literary Quest, authored by Utah resident “tsujigiri.” I feel an immediate kinship with this writer; like me, she has had a story to tell for more than a decade and is finally pursuing her dream of writing a fiction novel. Her distractions are/were similar to mine… travel, husband, kids, work, life. But, at some point, our creative spirits must lead us back to expression–be it writing, dancing, photography, painting… whatever makes the heart sing. Now, onto tsujigir’s lesson on adverb usage!

She noted how “every writing book (she’d) read” offers this bit of advice to help strengthen writing – eliminate adverbs.  In her excellent post, tsujigiri refreshes our memories on what makes an adverb and explore why they should be avoided.

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 incrediblyhandsome.
    • 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
    • Obviouslyhe 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 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!

tsujigiri also notes: 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.)

Material for adverb usage courtesy of  EnglishClub.com

To see tsujigiri‘s past Grammarland posts go here.

Please follow me on Twitter! @RebeccaLacko


Filed under Best Writer Tips, For the love of writing, Guest posts, Who is Writing What?