by Stephanie Morrill
Almost every writer uses too many adverbs in their early manuscripts. Adverbs are not evil, nor should you set out to remove all -ly words from your manuscript. What adverbs tend to be, however, is a cover-up for a weak verb choice. A specific, strong verb will always beat the verb + adverb combo:
She walked quickly down the hall.
She raced down the hall.
He moved gracefully across the dance floor.
He glided across the dance floor.
I whispered quietly to my sister.
I whispered to my sister.
In these situations, the adverb isn't the best choice. (In the third, it's redundant.)
For the fiction writer, however, I think there needs to be wiggle room for characters and their voices, as well as your own personal style. So if you have a character who wants to describe a fella as "dashingly handsome," then I say go for it. In that situation, the adverb is actually modifying the adjective. (Insert me mentally checking out of my own blog post. Now we're getting too technical.) But if you describe the man as walking dashingly into the room, I would consider having him stride or stroll instead.
Another type of word writers tend to overuse is qualifiers. Words like rather, little, a bit, very. Even quite can be used in such a way. (He's quite handsome.)
I'm a little tired.
She's rather tall for her age.
She's tall for her age.
He's very hungry.
Again, I don't think all uses of these words need to be eradicated from your stories, but they do need to be used sparingly.
And here are a few words and phrases you can almost always delete:
Suddenly: This frequently gets overused at the start of a sentence. It can feel like you need it to show that the action is, well, sudden. Often you don't, though. "Suddenly the clock struck midnight" can be written as "The clock struck midnight" and nothing is lost. Likewise, "Suddenly he appeared in the doorway" can be, "He appeared in the doorway."
Not to mention: This is a strange phrase that gets used out of habit, I think. Because you say not to mention...and then you do just that. "Not to mention that she already has a boyfriend." For dialogue it's fine, because it's one of those phrases people use. In your prose, I'd be wary.
The fact is/the fact of the matter is: In prose, you typically can omit this phrase and just state whatever the fact actually is. In dialogue, however, you might choose differently. "The fact of the matter is, I love you," might win out over plain ol' "I love you."
Began to/started to: This is something I frequently see misused. Because if Jane began to put on her purse or started to stir the soup, the phrase implies that she gets interrupted. If your character actually does the thing, then you want to say Jane slung her purse over her shoulder or Jane stirred the soup.
For fun, consider opening your manuscript and searching for either an adverb, qualifying word, or one of the words/phrases on the above list. If you want, post in the comments what your sentence is and if you decided to keep it or not.
Since I'm in the middle of editing a novella (a companion to The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series) I decided to play to.
When I ran a search for -ly words. I found this adverb:
Skylar takes a deep breath, clearly trying to keep her tone under control as well.I'm choosing to leave it because the story is told in Abbie's POV and that "clearly" marks that this is Abbie's interpretation of why Skylar is taking a deep breath. That adverb prevents me from head hopping, which is yet another writing no-no.
When I searched for qualifying words, I found this:
Owen gave a little whimper in my arms and I realized I had been squeezing him too tight.A whimper, by nature, is a little noise, so I'll cut that qualifier.
Of those other words and phrases I listed, the only one I had used in the novella was "suddenly":
There’s that word again. Suddenly everyone seems very concerned with my social life.I even started a sentence with it, as you can see. But I like it, and I'll leave it. These are Abbie's thoughts, and she's miffed. I feel the use of suddenly contributes to her snarky voice.
So as you can see, these are guidelines for word choices rather than hard and fast rules. Weighing whether you've selected the right word or phrase can feel nitpicky, but it's the difference between flowing and clunky prose.