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Creative Editing Techniques: Cutting Out Adverbs
It was Stephen King who first coined the phrase “the road to Hell is paved with adverbs”, and this prolific master of horror fiction was not wrong! I’ll confess this: the first time I was advised to get rid of adverbs in my work, I flipped out. Adverbs are a valid part of the English language, and I felt like I should be able to use them whenever I wanted. It was a hard and long lesson to learn, but the simple fact of the matter is that there are far more dynamic and interesting ways to bring your story to life than simply sticking an adverb into your sentence. Let’s look at some of the dos and don’ts in the world of descriptive writing:
Replace adverbs with similes or metaphors that explain the verb better – e.g. replace She spoke softly with Her low voice was light as air.
Get rid of quantifying adverbs like barely, nearly, eventually, or completely – e.g. replace He was barely hanging on with His fingertips ached where they clasped the rocky ledge.
Adverbs of emphasis should only be present in the dialogue, not prose – e.g. The question “Is that really what happened?” is naturalistic when people speak, but He really didn’t want to go outside does nothing to add any drama or dynamism to your prose writing.
Consider the atmosphere of the adverb you’ve been using, and work with that to reform your sentence – e.g. David talked loudly might be indicative that David is a prideful character, so what about David puffed out his chest, beaming as he addressed the crowd instead?
Use ‘with’ in your replacements, because you’re likely to end up with compound adverb, which is just as unimaginative! – e.g. with joy is no better than joyfully.
Replace an adverb with an overused cliché, or once again you’ll get no impact from the moment you’re trying to describe – e.g. He danced freely is no better than He danced without a care in the world.
Deliberately write without adverbs. Because adverbs are so common in spoken language, you’re bound to drop them into your writing on every page, but it’s not efficient to get rid of them as soon as you see them. There’s a danger of losing the atmosphere of what you’re writing at the moment if you try to edit as you go along, so if you happen to type an adverb, leave it there and go back to analyze the situation later.
Pro Tip: Use that Find, Search, or Navigation tool on your editing software to speed this process up. Search for ‘ly’ to find adverbs instantly, or the word ‘with’ if you’re looking for compound adverbs.
Be sure to test out this technique on a sample chapter of your work as soon as you get the chance. If you’re submitting to agents or feedback sources, you’ll notice a marked improvement in the mention of quality, immersion, and professionalism in your work once the adverbs are gone.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer K.C. Finn