If You Find Yourself Gazing Intently at an Adverb, Remove It

I was so proud, as I handed my first novel chapter to a friend for her review. She made it through one paragraph and looked up.

“Right here.” She pointed. “Isn’t this the same thing?”

Leave it to my friend – a non-native speaker who had majored in college English – to show me where I had used two words with the same meaning. That’s the problem with being a native speaker of your own language. You get used to the way things sound and you miss the nuances.

“The boat cut sharply through the water.”

Do you see it?

If a boat “cuts” it’s going to be “sharp.” No need to say both words. The adverb has to go.

This happens to the best of manuscripts. We write those gems – our literary babies – and then we have to cut.

Adverbs can go first.

We don’t need them.

(I was going to write “Usually, we don’t need them.” But that would be an adverb. And it wouldn’t be needed.)

Still not sure? Read these two sentences out loud, and listen to the difference:

The boat cut sharply through the water.

The boat cut through the water.

What do you hear? More importantly, what do you feel?

The first one sounds as if the author is telling you what’s going on, over-describing, trying to help you. It may remind you of a teacher dramatizing a storybook for her students. What you hear in that sentence is the author.

In the second sentence, you see and feel the boat. No embellishment required. Your imagination does the rest.

Most adverbs aren’t needed in your manuscript. They don’t add anything; in fact, they take away. Your manuscript becomes wordy, and you lose all that punch from your verbs.

Often, you will find adverbs showing up alongside a verb that has the same meaning. Like “cut sharply.” If you’ve chosen your verbs well, let them stand and do all the work. If you feel like the adverb paints a stronger picture, go back and choose a stronger verb. A verb that really shows what you mean.

Removing adverbs is a great tool for a round of self-editing. Go through your manuscript, one page at a time. Circle every adverb on the page. Read the page out loud, skipping the adverbs. How does it sound? Tighter? More vivid? Draw an X over each adverb – don’t scratch them out; just an X. Read it again.

After you’ve gone through your entire manuscript this way, read back through it again. You might find a few places where the adverbs are appropriate. Maybe they add some flavor. Go ahead and add just a few back in. Just a few. Congratulations – that is an awesome self-editing round, and your manuscript is stronger.