The Fiction Writer's Toolbox
A Monthly Column by Karen Hertzberg


 Behold the lowly adverb. You'll hear many a writing guru advise the novice to scrap every adverb in favor of lean, crisp writing. And you'll hear many a novice writer whine that the adverb gives his or her manuscript that extra bit of seasoning, and therefore can't be all bad. Who's right?

The easiest answer is, both. Those infamous -ly words, the ones that modify verbs, aren't about to spoil your creation, but, much like spices used to season a meal, a pinch is all you need. A well-placed adverb gives your manuscript just the right amount of flavor. Too many of them render it an unpalatable mess.

Let's serve up an example with too much seasoning:

David turned slowly and gazed longingly into Suzie's blue eyes. He smiled tenderly, and took her hand in his. "I love you," he said softly. "Will you marry me?"

 Not very tasty, is it? Writers often pile on the adverbs when writing about an emotional moment for their characters. Consider how you would rewrite this passage. Now, let's dig into something perfectly seasoned:

 David turned and gazed into Suzie's blue eyes. He smiled tenderly, and took her hand in his. "I love you," he murmured. "Will you marry me?"

 Depending on your taste, the example above is just about right. Dave turns and gazes--those verbs don't need any extra spice. We allow the adverb and let him smile "tenderly" because that adds a dash of flavor no single verb could. "Said softly" becomes a single, delicious verb, "murmured." Some might argue that there's a slight difference between murmuring something and saying it softly, but that's a matter of style. For instance, you might choose to show Dave doing something, like bowing his head, that will lead us to believe he's about to speak in a soft tone of voice. Any way you eliminate extra adverbs is fine, as long as they're gone.

 If you spoil your culinary concoctions with too many spices, you might as well forget your gourmet dinner and order a pizza. Not so adverb-overload! If you're tempted to over-season your first drafts with adverbs, go ahead. You'll simply have to sift them out in the revision stage.

 Try this--go through one of your manuscripts and highlight every adverb. Then, read each adverb-riddled sentence and decide whether you need that pesky -ly word or not. Be ruthless. Ask yourself three questions:

 1.) Am I using an adverb when what I really need is a stronger verb?

2.) Am I telling my reader what to experience when I should be showing?

3.) Could I replace a dull or clichéd adverb with a more interesting one?

 If you answer yes to any question, well...Chekov said it best, "Writing is rewriting." After several revisions, you'll be less tempted to use those adverbs in the first place, and more conscious of how to create strong, vivid writing with powerful verbs and less telling. Season carefully, and soon you'll be creating the sort of fiction editors (and readers!) will devour.  


Be sure to check out our latest contest, The Toolbox Challenge! Put your adverb-pinching skills to good use, and show us your stuff. Winners receive fun merchandise from Coffeehouse for Writers!


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