5 ways to eliminate –ly words from our writing

Among advice frequently bestowed upon writers is avoiding the adverb trap. Adverbs are those lovely little words—often ending in –ly—that modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. They don’t always end in –ly, of course. That’s a very pretty sweater; really, it’s just too cute.

Life Preserver

Don't leave your readers drowning in a sea of -ly words.

But –ly adverbs are especially tricky because they’re easy to use. We dress up our writing with them, and before we know it, our readers are drowning in a sea of adverbs. It’s easy to start pouring –ly words onto the page, especially in early drafts. The trick is to pluck enough of these words out as we revise so that the reader isn’t constantly being bombarded by adverbs.

As I was revising one of my WIPs, I stumbled across a couple pages in which –ly words were running amok. I began to notice the repetition, so I went through and circled every –ly word. Yep. Way too many.

After I’d weeded the scene of excess adverbs, I figured I would gather up a few of my tricks for reducing adverb usage.

1.)  Simply delete the –ly word. Perhaps it wasn’t adding anything to the sentence. When we delete it, does the meaning of the sentence change or become vague? If not, the simplest solution might be best: Do away with the word altogether. This is often the case when an adverb modifies an adjective. “He was absolutely irresistible,” could become, “He was irresistible.”

And –ly words aren’t the only adverbs to watch out for. Mark Twain once said of the adverb “very”: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” In other words, if our character is very angry, why can’t he just be angry? Or, here’s another possibility:

2.)  Choose stronger adjectives. Maybe a stronger adjective is called for altogether. Maybe he isn’t very angry, he’s seething, raging, livid, or furious. Maybe we don’t just need to lose the adverb. Maybe we need a different adjective as well.

3.)  Choose stronger verbs. Perhaps no verb gets modified more than “said.” Are we echoing words like said, touched, smiled, walked, looked, etc.? If so, maybe we initially used an adverb for some variety. What if we try using a stronger verb that can convey the connotation without needing to be modified? Consider this dialogue tag: “… she said heatedly.” What if we replaced said with challenged, demanded, or argued? We’ve varied our word choice and eliminated the need for an adverb here.

4.)  Use concrete, creative description. Sometimes the solution is trickier, and what’s really needed is a reworking of the sentence to craft a more powerful sentence construct. Or, if we find too many adverbs peppering a scene, it might be that more concrete details are called for to let the reader into the scene.

For example, consider this passage: He pressed his hand lightly against her arm. She turned swiftly away. He sighed frustratedly. What if we just get creative here and expand the scene?

Instead we try: His touch might have been light, but it sent warmth radiating through her nonetheless. And that sensation confused the hell out of her. She put a little distance between them. He sighed, curling his fingers, no doubt frustrated with her mixed signals.

The revision beats the initial adverb-laden passage. In the first version, the adverbs are telling. In the second version, nouns and verbs do the bulk of the work.

5.)  Let it stand. Not every –ly word needs to be eliminated from our writing.  A well-used adverb here and there can be more powerful than ten poorly used ones. Consider these sentences from Gena Showalter’s The Darkest Secret:

“Finally, they were getting somewhere. And shockingly, there was thick, dewy foliage sprouting from the rocks. Nice, she thought, until…” (End excerpt, page 182. I don’t want to give it away.)

See? Adverbs aren’t evil, but they are easy to overuse.

The bottom line is that a scene should be strong enough to come alive on the page without adverbs to prop it up. Nouns and verbs should always do the heavy lifting. If they’re not, we need to step back and figure out what’s missing. Not enough description? Too much passive voice? Too many weak verbs or sentence constructs? Or are we worried that our characters aren’t coming through clearly enough? Sometimes overuse of adverbs is purely accidental. Other times, it might signify a broader issue with a scene. Maybe it isn’t where it needs to be yet.

What approach do you take to adverbs when editing? Do you have any tricks of your own you’d like to share?

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Working with characters during revision

An alternate title for this post was: Dealing with Zoe.

See, I love Zoe, the female lead in Made of Shadows. She’s intense, passionate, fiery, compassionate, and maybe a little nuts. Okay, a little might be understating. Zoe is a woman on the edge. The martial arts skills and motorcycle don’t help.

photo from stock.xchng

So when editing Zoe’s story, sometimes it’s hard to tone her down. I realize I need a little distance from MOS to see the places where Zoe’s zest is adding to the plot and when it’s just distracting. Like I said, I care about her. I want the reader to care about her, too, which means I’ll have to learn to love her a little less, so I can edit her story properly.

She’s an absolute contrast to Lithe, of Pierce My Heart, my other WIP. Lithe is a soft-spoken introvert. She’s also a tough-as-nails fae investigator, but her motto, if she had one, would be, “Grace under pressure.” Sometimes I’ve worried that Lithe’s voice isn’t strong enough. Unlike Zoe, I worry that there’s not enough of Lithe shining through in the story.

Thus, one of my primary focuses for the next few months is going to be character development.

Our characters need to be relatable and likable. If the reader doesn’t care about what happens to Zoe or Lithe, then why keep reading? We want our readers to love the characters as much as we do. And if we’ve stuck around long enough to tell their stories, chances are that we do love them.

What complicates the issue is that our characters need to be consistent. This doesn’t just mean that in chapter one our character (let’s call her Lucinda) is a diehard vegetarian and in the next chapter she’s woofing down filet mignon. Character consistency is about more than favorite foods and hair color–it’s about the psyches of our characters, who they are deep down and how that influences their actions.

"Rodrigo, your kisses rock my world. Let me tell you my deepest, darkest secrets."

If Lucinda is perennially mistrustful, we need to make sure she doesn’t just easily open up to other characters. (As in, “Oh, Rodrigo, you’re a really good kisser. Why don’t I tell you about my traumatic childhood?”) Every action needs to be consistent with who she is. It’s not just about what the author wants to happen or where the plot needs to go; it’s about what Lucinda would do next, or what she would do given the next progression in the story. So if she opens up to Rodrigo, there needs to be a damn good reason, and one that’s consistent with her character.

But Lucinda also needs to change, affected by the circumstances of the plot and her interactions with other characters. Lucinda on page 1 can’t solve the situation (say, defeat the bad guy). If she could, we wouldn’t be writing a novel about her. Something has to happen between page 1 and page 300 that allows her to emerge victorious (if that’s the plot). Lucinda needs to change.

The character arc needs to mesh with the plot arc. Maybe Lucinda learns to trust, and trusting allows her to let someone in who can help her defeat the bad guys. She changes from a loner to someone capable of teamwork and trust.

And that’s where I’m at right now: reading books and blogs about character development. I know my characters. I need to make sure the reader does as well, and that each action is believable and appropriate. I hit a turning point while writing MOS. I’d been stuck for a while, not knowing where the story should go next. I tried a new approach. I stepped back  and asked, “What would Blake do?” Ah, bingo. “And what would Zoe’s reaction be?” Ah, naturally. I let the characters drive the story, and the plot unfolded before me.

What about you? What are your stumbling blocks with character? Any advice for working with character during the revision stage?

3 weak sentence constructs to avoid in our writing

As writers, everything we read and write develops our ear and eye. We learn how good writing sounds, how it leaps off the page, how it sends a thrill or a chill through us. A good line has bite. And we develop an eye—an eye for glaring spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors, so that those, too, pop off the page.

Reading a lot is a given for a writer—it develops your ear. And editing and critiquing—whether it’s a friend’s cover letter for an employment opportunity, judging for a writing contest, or the in-depth work we do for our critique partners—develops both our ear and our eye.

I’ve found a few sentence constructs that pop up in writing (my own included) that diminish the strength of the prose. When revising, we can find phrases with more “pop,” replacing weaker sentence constructs with those that have more “bite”.

1.)    There is/are/was/were. What is “there”? It’s not a character, not a meaningful object or place in the story. “There is” is one of the weakest sentence constructs I can think of, especially in fiction, when we have so much poetic license to be creative. “There is” can generally be replaced with a stronger, more vivid construct. “There is a tree deep within the forest…” can easily become “Deep within the forest, a tree stretches out its great, wide arms…” Because “There is…” really doesn’t mean much at all. But “A tree stretches…” takes us right to the heart of the sentence. When I revise my work, I try to avoid this sentence construct as often as possible. It’s too easy, it’s often telling not showing, and it’s just not powerful enough. “There is” is okay every once in a while. It’s just best in very minute doses.

2.)    I felt/he felt/she felt. If you’re in first-person or in third-person close, “felt” can be useful but highly overused—especially in a first draft. When revising, we can note these places in our writing. If we find this structure frequently, it’s time for a change. Why? Because, like “there is,” “I felt” can often be cut, leaving us with a stronger sentence. “I felt my heart thumping in my chest,” becomes the much stronger, “My heart thumped in my chest.”

3.)    Overuse of rhetorical questions. “How was Blake going to get out of this one?” “What was Cassie going to do?” I find these phrases peppering my first drafts—often because I honestly didn’t know how Blake was going to get out of this one, or what Cassie was going to do. They were more for me as a writer (clues to myself that I needed to figure something out) than for my reader. Every once in a blue moon is okay. In subsequent drafts, I try to delete these phrases as much as possible. If we’re not careful, such questions can start annoying the reader. Don’t you think? 😛

What weak phrases do you find in your own or others’ writing? How do we vanquish weak sentence structures so we can make our stories really sing?