Friday, January 26, 2018

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 also helpful red flags during revisions that point out not only potential problem areas in the prose, but "here's a spot where you have a great opportunity to flesh out what your character is doing" areas. Adverbs are your brain's way of telling you about the emotional state of your character, and pointing out a place you might want to examine further. For example:
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. It's a perfectly fine sentence, and we've probably all written some fashion of it at some point. You could find another word for "walked cautiously" like tiptoed, or sneaked, or slipped, but that only solves the 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. There's also a decent chance the description in that scene might be a little flat and needs fleshing out here. 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 the freedom of using adverbs in a first draft)

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."

How do you feel about adverbs? Do you use them in early drafts? 
Find out more about show, don't tell with my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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 welcome! Glad it helped.

  17. Most helpful! Thank you.
    Kate Worth

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

  19. 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.

  20. Wow! I've never thought of adverbs this way, but I'm excited to do so from now on.

  21. I agree, I use them first, then I go back and erase them. They are great as an emotional flag.

    I have an odd question, but it is not adverb related, when you read your own work (fresh work), can you read like it is a normal book? I read my own work, I like some bits, but it never feels like a "real" book.

    When I write a good report on work, I feel it immediatly as I read."Ok, this is looking fine."

    But with fiction, even when other people say it is a good piece of writing, it never feels 100% right.

    I'm curious to know how fellow writers feel about this.

    1. They never feel like real books to me :) I've been able to get to the, "Hey, this is pretty good" stage, but I always see the flaws and worry if anyone will like it.

      Seeing it in print makes it a little more real, though. and seeing it in a bookstore.

      I think this is pretty common among authors, actually. I've heard multiple writers and writers friend say the same thing.

    2. What a relief, I'm not alone on this.
      However, it is also bad to think that is a condition that can stick with us forever.

      Maybe it is because we know how the book "could be", how it looked on previous drafts, what it might have happened if we didn't decide to do it this or that way. It is the onus of the artistic side of our craft, I think.

      Thanks Janice, yet another great save.

    3. I think most writers (or creative people in general, really) have a lot of self doubt. It's probably one of the things that push us to grow and try new things. Can I make it better? What if I did this instead of that?

      It's not as bad as it sounds :)