Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tips for Editing Your Manuscript from a Real-Life Editor, Part 7

Part 1: Look it up!

Part 2:  Read it out loud.

Part 3:  Have someone who knows what they're doing read it.

Part 4:  Consistency, consistency, consistency!

Part 5:  Dialogue're NOT it!

Part 6: Pick the right word to say what you mean.

This is part 7: Adverbs--Kill it with fire! 

Or, as Stephen King says in On Writing: "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Apply adverbs here...

That might sound like a little extreme, but trust me, adverbs are not your friend. What's an adverb? It's basically the equivalent of what an adjective is to a noun, but it's a word that describes or modifies another adverb, adjective or, most commonly, a verb--how something is done. Often--but not always--they end in "ly".

He walked slowly.  How did he walk? Slowly.

She talked quietly.  How did she talk? Quietly.

You get the idea.

So what's the problem with adverbs? Description is good, right? And I'm always on everyone about showing, not telling (*maniacal laughter* You just wait...there'll be an entry in this series on that too, I can guarantee it).

The problem with adverbs is that there's almost always a better word to use that makes your narrative stronger. See all those words in bold and italics? I even went overboard with the emphasis so you guys would know I'm serious.

And since I'm so big on showing, not telling, I'm gonna show you.  Read the following two narrative paragraphs, and pick the stronger one...

Kylie quietly walked through the house. She'd waited patiently all day for her family to leave. Now, Kylie finally had the computer all to herself. She firmly pressed the button and switched it on, fidgeting excitedly as it slowly booted. The web browser opened suddenly, and Kylie meticulously poked in the address. Yay! Kylie thought happily. Now I can immediately watch my favorite cat videos!

Kylie tip-toed through the house. She'd waited all day for her family to leave. Now, Kylie had the computer all to herself. She pressed the button and switched it on, fidgeting as it booted. The web browser opened, and Kylie poked in the address. Yay! Kylie thought. Now I can watch my favorite cat videos!

The second one is stronger, more direct, and clearer, and that's with only changing one of the adverbs (quietly walked to tip-toed) and just deleting the others. Even better would be to find ways of showing even more using other, stronger, words.

Here's what I mean by that:

Said quietly becomes whispered.

Walked slowly becomes strolled.

By using a single word (or a short phrase) in place of the adverb, it provides a more direct description of what's happening and makes it clearer to the reader.

This post with a giant quote from Stephen King's On Writing, where he talks dandelions in your word-garden and closing the door firmly, takes the cake. Go read it. I'll be watching Nyan Cat until you're done...


Back already? Good.

Oh, and like the awesome Mr. King says, for the love of Jesus on a Velociraptor, please don't use them with dialogue tags. For 99% of the time, let the dialogue communicate how someone says something. For the other 1%...well, I guess I can let it slide.

"Fine, Mom, but as soon as I'm done cleaning my room, I'm gonna watch cat videos again," Kylie said dully.

See what I did there? I crossed out the adverb. Why? Because you don't need it. It's clear from the dialogue that Kylie is whining (you could, in theory, use "whined" as the dialogue tag instead of "said", but, again, it's not necessary--her tone is already clear to the reader, and readers aren't stupid).

There are ways around using them, too. Is it recommended? Well, that probably depends on what you're trying to accomplish with the description...

"Of course you'd want to watch cat videos instead of eating pizza with me," Jen said scathingly.

"Of course you'd want to watch cat videos instead of eating pizza with me," Jen snapped.

Is it easy to tell from the dialogue that the words are said "scathingly"? Maybe, maybe not. But in cases like this, it'd be your call whether to use an adverb or not. Better yet, change "said" to "snapped" or something like I did. It's not one of those dialogue tags that's too "out there", and it effectively communicates what you're trying to get across about how Jen is saying something.

Let me also say that I'm a huge fan of a first draft. Mine are littered with them. But, because this is an editing how-to tip post thingy, I feel I should emphasize that I try my best to catch them and weed them out (haha, get it? Weed them out? Like dandelions? You'd get it if you read the Stephen King bit above...), replacing the adverbs with stronger language or taking them out completely. So feel free to let your first-draft garden get a bit'll be taking some Round-Up to it when the second draft comes along.

Are you guys finding these posts useful? What are your thoughts on adverbs? Please let me know in the comments. :-)

xoxo Sarah


  1. This is such a great "showing" post on how to make your work stronger without adverbs. Sure wish I could've read it before my first manuscript was published. I was sooo adverb happy---especially with dialogue tags. I really love your advice on going nuts w/ the first draft & allowing effusive use of -ly there. Without that freedom I'd never finish writing anything, and with those adverbs in there, its a reminder of what I want to convey in a better way in the second & third drafts.

    I've tagged you in a thing at my blog today. No obligation, but if you can work it into your blog schedule I'd love see you WIP sentences. :)

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I'm glad this series helps people...we all have different writing styles, and the same thing won't work for everyone. And you're right--that's what the first draft is for. So go crazy, but fix it later. :-P I'll definitely check out your blog in a bit.