Fiction Writer's Toolbox
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?
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
serve up an example with too much seasoning:
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?"
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:
turned and gazed into Suzie's blue eyes. He smiled tenderly, and
took her hand in his. "I love you," he murmured. "Will you
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.
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.
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:
Am I using an adverb when what I really need is a stronger verb?
Am I telling my reader what to experience when I should be showing?
Could I replace a dull or clichéd adverb with a more interesting one?
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.
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