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Wednesday, July 28

Overcoming Adversity Through Adverbs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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 planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Adverbs as an entry point for expansion; that's great. I never thought about that >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  2. I agree! I'd never looked at them as a place to expand on the setting or character's emotions. Great tip :)

  3. Excellent, excellent post. I often find myself expanding on description in order to replace adverbs, but you say it so eloquently. Eek! Adverb. :)

  4. Showing emotion is important; this is a great way to begin the process.

  5. Great example of how to avoid using them. Thanks.

  6. Wow. As always, really awesome -- and really *usable* advice. That's why I find your blog more helpful than other writing advice out there; it's got great overall tips but also very, very useful specifics. Thanks, as always!

  7. I love your take on this. So many times we just hear adverbs are bad, but you do an awesome job of explaining why and how we can use them to improve our writing. Great post!

  8. I never thought of this. Brilliant idea... I'm so putting it to good use.

  9. Wow. Every single time I read one of your posts, it makes me excited at the fresh way you see things. You have amazing insight and I'm going to try this out with my writing. Thanks.


  10. Great post. I never looked at it like that. It was like adverbs are bad - full stop! Now I know how to fix them.
    Thank you Janice.

  11. Excellent points! I've discovered my WIP gets longer instead of shorter as I root out my adverbs. Thank goodness it ran short before.

    I love your blog. Thank you for helping us!

  12. Hmm, sounds like I should use more adverbs in my first draft to free me from bogging down in trying to write precise wording. Sprinkle in the adverbs as placeholders for things to expand out, so that I can move along faster.

    I know you were going at this from a different angle, but it sounds like from the creation side rather than the revising side, adverbs can be used as codewords/hints/reminders for what you were thinking at the time you wrote the scene. Then on the revising side, you pick out the adverbs and expand them out.

  13. Thanks all! It's funny how something you look at all the time can suddenly change. I'd never thought about adverbs in this way until the other day.

    Jaleh, you could definitely do that, and I have in some scenes. I'll also use smiled and frowned as reminders of emotions in a first draft. Whatever works to get the story down.

  14. I am a compulsive overabuser of the dreaded adverb! It's one of the first things I change during my rewrite. Thanks for this great blog!

  15. You're a genius! What an eye opener. Thank you for the blog.

  16. Most helpful! Thank you.
    Kate Worth

  17. Kate, you're welcome! Thanks for stopping by.

  18. This is the third most useful thing I have read about novel writing! The other two you also wrote Janice! Dang kid your batting a K.