How to cut adverbs from your manuscript
by Jessica Bell
Writers constantly have rules thrown at them left, right, and center. Show, don’t tell! Stop using so many dialogue tags! More sensory detail! More tension! Speed up the pace! Yada yada yada … it can become overwhelming, yes? I used to feel overwhelmed by it all too. In fact, I still do sometimes. It’s hard enough to get the words on the page, let alone consider how to put them there.
In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says that in order to not be overwhelmed, a writer needs to focus on short assignments. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how that little picture frame reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. Basically, if you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. I believe the same applies to learning the craft of writing. If aspiring writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting.
Today I’d like to draw your attention to one of the most common criticisms aspiring writers face, to “absolutely avoid adverbs and clichés like the plague.” But see, right now, I just used one of each. Because they come naturally, and we frequently utilize them in everyday speech. But in fiction, too many adverbs and clichés weaken your prose. It’s considered “lazy writing,” because it means we don’t have to show what’s happening.
If your manuscript has too many adverbs and clichés, it most likely means that the emotion you felt while writing it is not going to translate to the reader in the same way. Never underestimate the weakness of adverbs and clichés. You’d be surprised how vivid your writing will become once they are subverted.
Sure, clichés exist because they stem from things many of us experience in real life, and you may argue that they are “relatable,” so why not use them? But the way in which one experiences things isn’t always the same. As writers, it’s your duty to make readers experience your story from a unique point of view. Your point of view.
Before we go into details about how adverbs and clichés weaken prose, and how you can subvert them, first you need to understand that they aren’t always going to be a problem. In fact, you don’t need to go overboard trying to eliminate every single adverb and cliché in your manuscript. Because sometimes, they just work. They serve a purpose. Especially in dialogue. Of course, it also depends a lot on your character’s voice.
For example, sometimes it’s more concise to write, “She lightly knocked on the door.” Not every single action needs to be poetic and unique. Sometimes you need to write exactly what someone is doing because it’s not important enough to draw attention to. Also, if we just wrote, “She knocked on the door,” we’d have no idea whether it was loud or not. And if this action wasn’t all that significant, it would be a bit too wordy to say something like, “She knocked on the door as if her hand were as light as a feather.” (Look, cliché again, they creep in so easily, don’t they?)
But consider this: What if this person’s light knocking on the door was paramount to the story? What if it was a moment of suspense? What if behind that door was a man this person was afraid of? What if this person was anticipating being verbally abused for the interruption? Then this ‘lightly knocking on the door’ would have a significant purpose, yes?
The action of lightly knocking on that door is no longer a simple transitional action that moves the character from A to B. It is in your manuscript for a reason. You put it there for your readers to feel the same apprehension your character feels. And no adverb or cliché, as you can see, is going to draw attention to that moment of intensity like something crafted for it exclusively.
So let’s try our hand at making this moment pop. How about, “She tapped on the door. It echoed in her ears like an axe to a carcass.”
So how does this better convey its intended sentiment? I’d say the fact that this person perceives their tap on the door as a deep, echoing, and unpleasant sound means that they are anxious about the reaction it is going to elicit. Also note that I’ve chosen the verb (tap) which means “a light knock,” so there is no reason for me to use the adverb “lightly.”
So how exactly can we approach the subversion of adverbs and clichés? For starters, play around with similes and metaphors when you’re trying to convey emotion, and for action, use strong verbs to show it happening in real time. For example, instead of using something clichéd like “the streets were so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” find a small detail to zoom in on that shows how quiet the streets are. Put a lonely-looking man kicking rubbish down an abandoned street, perhaps. Have him drag his feet. Perhaps the sound can be heard from two blocks away where your narrator is waiting for a bus that never arrives.
Most of the time, if you think of the small details, rather than the bigger picture, you’ll avoid adverbs and clichés naturally. And remember to be experimental. You never know what you might come up with.
The Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell, also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.
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Genre – Non-Fiction / Writing Skills Reference
Rating – PG