You've no doubt heard it over and over: never use adverbs in your writing. Sound advice, but if you follow it to the extreme, you could miss out on their very useful properties.
As bad a rep as adverbs have, they're actually pretty handy during a first draft. They allow you to jot down how a character feels or how they say something without losing your momentum. You can keep writing, and go back and revise later.
They're wonderfully helpful red flags during revisions that point out "here's where you have a great opportunity to flesh out what your character is doing." They're like your brain telling you about the emotional state of your character, and pointing out a place you might want to examine further.
I walked cautiously across the room to the back door.Here, cautiously is doing the explaining, telling that this person is nervous in some way. You could find another word for "walked cautiously" like tiptoed, or sneaked, or slipped, or whatever, but that only solves the lazy adverb problem. It doesn't do anything to capitalize on what your subconscious might be telling you. Instead, try looking deeper and showing someone being cautious in a way that helps characterize and further develop the scene.
I scanned the room, checking for tripwires, pressure plates, anything that looked like it might be a trap. Looked clear. I darted for the door.Is it longer than the first adverb sentence? Sure, but it's more interesting and tells you a lot more about what's going on. Which probably saves you words somewhere else. Especially since there's a decent chance the description in that scene might be a little flat. If you had a better sense of the character's emotional state, you probably wouldn't have used the adverb in the first place.
Look at your adverbs and what those sentences are describing overall, and then think about other ways to get that idea across. It's not always about replacing it with a stronger word, though that certainly is an option. Sometimes those adverbs are pinpointing an important aspect that would really make the section sing if you fleshed it out.
(Here's more on opportunities to make your writing stronger)
Look at where you use adverbs and identify what you're trying to do with them. They're telling the reader what's going on, but if what's in your head doesn't make it to the page, you can wind up with a reader/writer disconnect.
"That's just wrong," Bob said angrily.Here, the adverb is used to denote anger, but it's a lazy word because it makes the reader have to decide what Bob's anger looks like and how he acts when he's angry. And readers might get it wrong. One reader might think Bob screams and yells, another might think he gets real quiet and dangerous. But if you think Bob cracks jokes so he doesn't blow up, what you write for him won't connect right with the reader, because they'll have different ideas in their minds and read the words in that context.
(Here's more on adverb basics and how to use them)
I'd always thought of adverbs as placeholder words, but they can also play helpful role in editing. They're not the enemy, they're just your subconscious telling you to, "do more here."
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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