Editing Tip #21

Words to Avoid & Why – Pt. 3

toxic wordsOkay, I know you’ve heard it before but it needs to be said again: Adverbs are toxic.

“When you use an adverb you’re cheating on the verb.” ~ James Dewar: Publisher, producer, editor, teacher, & writer.

We are taught in elementary school that adverbs are good.  Our teachers encourage us to use these descriptors to help us realize how a word can change or alter the meaning of another word.  Then, we are told to use them in our writing.

We are taught in high school that alliteration (a series of words beginning with the same letter or sound) and consonance (the repetition of similar ending sounds) are useful literary devices to help get a point across in a different way – and what better way to do that than with a few well-placed adverbs?

By the time post-secondary education comes along, unless you are specifically taking courses in the Literary Arts and the Humanities (for those who chose this route), the bulk of writing is for essays or whichever business program you are enrolled in.  But it is here, in your literary English classes, where professors tell you to forget everything you’ve learned about the use of adverbs.

I know, you’re thinking, “What’s the harm?  We have them for a reason, why not make use of them?”

In today’s society those professionals involved in the field of literature (writers, editors, agents, publishers, etc.) are looking for what they call “clean and tight” prose.  It all comes back to what words we use to tell our stories.  After all the fluff and back story are eliminated it’s down to word choice.

Have you chosen the best word (verb) for the sentence?

If there’s an adverb helping your verb along, then somewhere there exists a single verb that will do the job better.  When I write, I maintain access to 3 different thesaurus’: my giant print one given to me as a gift when I went to post-secondary school to become a teacher, the one attached to my word processor, and the internet.  But now comes the fun part.

You can’t just pick any synonym at random.

Here is the word craft of literature: the right verb is not only strong enough to say exactly what you mean, but it’s recognizable enough not to alienate your audience or reader.

Now, the rules change slightly depending on your genre.  Generally speaking, children’s books, middle-grade books, and anything that is helping new readers will have a careful smattering of well-chosen and appropriate adverbs.  In Young Adult fiction you will also find a sprinkling of adverbs, as well as in Romance novels.  However, New Adult and Adult fiction should be nearly adverb free.

James Dewar advises, “Use a rating scale.  When you see an adverb judge your verb – give it a 1 if it’s weak, 2 if it’s passable, and 3 if you’ve nailed it.  Then go back, change the 1s to 3s and delete all the adverbs from your manuscript.”

If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to rid your work of those toxic adverbs and breathe new life into your stories.

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Categories: Editing

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