September 26th, 2014

Use Adverbs "Consciously" To Make Your Writing Strong

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc

photo credit: quinn.anya via photopin cc

 

I'll admit to being 'adverb adverse'. It’s one of my reading pet peeves  I’m reading along, immersed in the story when I start to notice them. And once I do, every one becomes a drop of water on my forehead, drip, drip, dripping until I want to heave the book.  They irritate me enough that I will put a book down, no matter whose name is on the cover.

Why? Because it’s lazy writing. It’s the easy way out – the first thing you think of. The problem is, it’s the first thing everyone thinks of. It’s Margie Lawson’s ‘invitation to skim’.

Let's see if I can convince you that I’m right.

I read somewhere that putting in an adverb is like saying, "I really, really, mean this." And as a reader, don't you assume that if an author put it in, they meant it? Adverbs are overkill. If you feel you need an adverb, I'd make the case that your sentence needs work rather than the band-aid of an adverb.

Yes, I know, some famous author's books are littered with them. I use them now and again myself. But my point is — you should scrutinize every one before you put it in. For example - which is better?

“She lightly knocked on the door.”

“She tapped on the door. It echoed in her ears like an axe to a carcass.”

The above example is from Chuck Sambuchino’s amazing blog. You can read it all here.

See what I mean? An adverb can be your signal of a place that you can strengthen your writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you can never use another adverb. There are times when you need one.

  • To see how authors I respect used adverbs I turned to my hero, Pat Conroy. He doesn’t use many, but when he does, it’s for the poetic cadence. How do I know this? He’s been known to spend an hour, just getting one sentence right. This is from South of Broad:

“I went directly from a fearful childhood to a hopeless one without skipping a beat.”

“I found myself thoroughly unable to fulfill my enhanced duties as an only child.”

  • Sometimes you want to be over the top; when you DO mean to say, ‘really, really’. This is from my August release, Sweet on You:

Irritation oozed into the cracks in her armor. She now officially hated that accent.

The pulse pounding blood to her face was proof that you couldn’t actually die of embarrassment.

  • Adverbs can work in dialog as well – they help give a natural feel. From my other August release, The Reasons to Stay:

“That is exactly the last thing I want.”

“I’m only trying to wake your ass up. Life isn’t safe, or neat and tidy.”

“You really must think I’m an ass.”

So what's the Fix? Easy. Do a 'find' for 'ly' in your manuscript. Read the sentence with the adverb, Unless you really, really need it (Yes, I’m smirking), strengthen the sentence by editing it out. I make the case that your sentence and your writing will be stronger without it.

If you DO decide to leave the adverb, use it consciously. Have a reason for it being there - other than you were in a hurry.

So here's your assignment: Open a chapter of your WIP (work in progress) and do a find for 'ly'.

Oh, and don’t be depressed if you have a lot of them. In writing this blog, I discovered, from my own search, that I’m in love with the word ‘only’ and didn’t realize it.

Sigh.

So have I convinced you to be 'adverb adverse'?

 

About Laura

Author Headshot Small Laura Drake is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways, or a serious cowboy crush. She writes both Women's Fiction and Romance.

She sold her Sweet on a Cowboy series, romances set in the world of professional bull riding, to Grand Central. The Sweet Spot (May 2013), Nothing Sweeter (Jan 2014) and Sweet on You (August 2014). The Sweet Spot won the 2014 Romance Writers of America®   RITA® award in the Best First Book category.

Her 'biker-chick' novel, Her Road Home, sold to Harlequin's Superomance line (August, 2013) and has expanded to three more stories set in the same small town. The Reasons to Stay released August, 2014.

In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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50 responses to “Use Adverbs "Consciously" To Make Your Writing Strong”

  1. Lynn says:

    This was helpful..I'm guilty.

  2. As both an editor and a writer, I am constantly (lol) on the lookout for these. Thank you for an insightful article. 🙂

  3. Good morning, Laura ... I have a "very" conscious buzzer that sounds in my head for "very" "really" or all of the hyperbole of adverbs. So much so, that to prove it to myself, I just did a find. Okay you add a "space" ... insert "ly" and then add a "space."

    That's how Margie teaches us to find the "as" of it all. And if I did that search and destroy mission correctly (I love it when I kid) ... I actually, and I mean really, did not find a single "ly" in my current WIP.

    The "very" came from Stephen King and his many tips on words to avoid. So thanks to you and Margie and Mr. King ... I am free !!! Thanks for another great post 🙂

  4. Laura Drake says:

    Wow, Florence, that's incredible! I bow to you. But you can have a few conscious ones!

  5. Laura Drake says:

    Except, Florence, if you put a space before the 'ly', you won't find words that end in 'ly', will you? Does anyone know?

    • That's what I wanted to know. I can try with another suffix to see if that method works, but if anyone here knows, please post an answer here.

      I know I can conscious"ly" have them and I did not make an effort not to ... I was surprised when I did find. So please someone tell us if what I did was correct 🙂

  6. Terry Odell says:

    For me, those little suckers are my fingers' equivalent of the spoken "um" while trying to put together the next sentence. I do a search and destroy. Then I plug the manuscript into the Smart Edit software and find more. And more. And more. It has a special search just for adverbs, as well as overused words in general.

  7. I discovered the space 'ly' space search idea after I published my last book. I'll be using it next time. Live and learn. Great post.

  8. bonniegill says:

    I loved your explanation on when to use adverbs. I'm calling it the Laura Drake rule and adding it to my editing check list.

  9. carrienichols says:

    Great post, Laura! I too am careful of adverbs and made it my mission to rid my writing of all of them. But then, like you, I realized that sometimes a sentence just works better with a quick and dirty adverb.

    I think that prove's Margie's saying, cadence trumps everything. 🙂

    • Laura Drake says:

      Yep, Carrie - I am incapable of killing the ones in for cadence. Don't you love it when you work on a sentence until it rolls on the page? That's when I'm most proud of my writing.
      And why Pat Conroy is my hero.

  10. I always mean to do the "ly" check when I finish a book - and then get caught up with other issues. I'll try to do this check after each chapter now until it's ingrained as part of my process. Thanks, Laura!

    • Laura Drake says:

      Good idea, Debbie - strengthen those sentences when the plot and tone of the chapter is fresh in your head. That's why I always 'warm up' for my writing day by reading what I read the day before. That's when I catch them.

  11. Megan Morgan says:

    This is really, really great advice. Sorry, that joke must be getting old. It's good advice, though!

  12. M. Lee Scott says:

    Thanks for this eye-opening post, Laura. Besides the 'ly' check it also helps to have a skilled critique partner. Mine is invaluable.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Couldn't live without mine either, M. Lee - but why make them do the work, when it's so easy to do yourself? That way, unburdened by adverb killing, they may notice something else!

  13. ericjbaker says:

    I agree that adverbs can point to lazy writing, but they have their place. You know when you read a bad one, because it sticks out and calls attention to itself, like in the examples above. However, if I have to contort the sentence to avoid one, perhaps it's better to leave it. With any rule or recomendation, a writer is at her best when evaluating each case individually (adverb intended). Taking a blanket approach to writing rules can be as lazy as using adverbs.

  14. Fae Rowen says:

    Been waiting for this one, Laura. Thanks for the great examples!

  15. Your post could not have come at a better time. I'd finished a short story I was ready to send off. After reading your post I thought it could use a good review of adverbs so I followed your advice and did a search for every word that ended in "ly". Holy Smokes! There were dozens! Took close to an hour to delete or replace the adverbs with stronger language. Thanks so much!!!

  16. Brianna Soloski says:

    Great timing on this post. We were just discussing sentence structure/syntax/diction/etc in my advanced nonfiction class and I realized how little I know on the topic. I will be looking at adverbs for sure. (I almost typed definitely, but that seemed like overkill).

  17. Laura, thank you. You have shown us some great examples that I find helpful. I found the example of - She slightly knocked.... She tapped....excellent example. I shall work on making the few adverbs I use work for my story.

  18. Candy Korman says:

    I've been conscious of my adverb use for a while. The one place I ACTUALLY like them is in dialog. I aim for word choices that reflect individual characters and emphatic phrases (loaded with adverbs) suit some speaking styles. The annoying drip, drip, drip comes when adverbs are studded into narrative text. And yes, it drip, drip, drips until I want to scream!

  19. Julie Glover says:

    Great point, Laura! We tend to use adverbs without thinking, so it's good to question their presence. There are often better ways to word a sentence, as you've demonstrated!

    I will say that, writing young adult, adverbs can work well sometimes with spoken and internal dialogue. They can amp up that teen voice when a character so "totally, absolutely, thoroughly" feels something. In action sequences, though...not really.

    My thoughts anyway.

  20. […] Laura Drake on the conscious use of adverbs. Writers in the Storm. […]

  21. Thanks Laura, it's always a good reminder. We must be thorough in our search. Relentless in our duty to the reader not to fall into lazy habits. My first drafts are littered with them. When reviewing my first draft I ask myself what did I really, really, mean to say here.

  22. […] at a time trying choosing the strongest one and make sure it’s not redundant. Check this post for the link to using adverbs […]

  23. […] Smash Writers short post on strong verbs Writers In The Storm post Use Adverbs “Consciously” To Make Your Writing Strong (Not exactly verbs, but still related) Writer’s Digest post on Subverting Adverbs and […]


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