The Maven Editor

Helpful Tips from a Friendly Editor

Adverbs: Kill it with Fire December 7, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ashley Christman @ 2:31 am

One of the most common things I see from new authors is the overuse of adverbs. I myself was once guilty of the heinous offense of sprinkling adverbs in my manuscript like glitter in a preschool art class. Lucky for me, I had a tough editor who kicked my butt into shape and taught me that adverbs, when used incorrectly, do nothing to get your point across. Instead they’re train wrecks, distracting the reader from the story that you as an author want to tell.

Okay, that was a tad dramatic, but you get the point.

Adverbs, at least the ones that end in “ly”, are not in themselves bad. But for new writers, who often use them as a crutch, they are like tiny little Frankensteins that are a mark of weak prose (or at least prose that needs a little bit more work). Even seasoned authors can overuse them and they are equally annoying.

The following is an example of what I see when going through the slush pile:

Kelly lifted her hand and quietly walked down the hall. She stopped and looked at herself in the mirror smiling contently at her reflection. She was so positively beautiful that Brad was sure to notice her.

So they’re not all that bad, but do you notice how many adverbs there were? Isn’t it a tad distracting from the point? Not sure which words are adverbs? Here’s the sentence again with all the offensive words bolded:

Kelly lifted her hand and quietly walked down the hall. She stopped and looked at herself in the mirror smiling contently at her reflection. She was so positively beautiful that Brad was sure to notice her.

You’re probably thinking, I don’t see what’s so bad other than the sentences are terrible. Here’s a different example:

“You can’t go in there,” Mary said, angrily.

“Watch me,” Striker replied, deliberately.

“You’re just suspicious,” she countered accusingly.

He automatically smiled. “Damn right, sweetheart.”

Get it?

Often times, before I even start work on a manuscript, I send it to my authors to have them strip the work of all unnecessary adverbs. More often than not, I still have to work with them to strip 99% of manuscript of unnecessary adverbs. Adverbs are like strong curry. You only need a drop.

But bestsellers use them, you’re probably thinking.

Just because some of the more noteworthy authors out there are using them like they’re the best thing since Kraft Singles, doesn’t mean you can. Here’s an example of how the exchange between Mary and Striker can be more effective without adverbs:

Mary clenched her fists and in a low tone said, “You can’t go in there.”

“Watch me,” Striker replied His countenance determined that he would not be swayed.

“You’re just suspicious.” She crossed her arms over her chest, moving in the way of the door.

He smirked, like he was known to do in front of a pretty woman.  “Damn right, sweetheart.”

You still get what’s going on, but now the scene has subtext. There’s more than just adverbs, there are actions to SHOW the reader what’s going on with the characters, rather than just telling them.

But what if I still want an adverb, you ask? Here’s an example of what could be considered doing it well:

Mary walked into the room, swaying her hips to and fro for Striker’s benefit. He smirked, enjoying the view of her round butt as she moved. She turned to him, affording him the pleasure of a glimpse of cleavage beneath her low-cut top. Naturally, he pretended to not notice  her luscious curves, when she asked, “Does this dress make me look fat?”

Still not great, but it’ll do.

So next time you review your manuscript, review your use of adverbs. A manuscript should contain no words that are not absolutely necessary. So if your sentences can be rewritten stronger without the offender, cut it and rewrite it. Your editor will thank you and your work will look much more polished in the slush pile.


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