How do you make your writing leaner and meaner?
Simple. Shoot adverbs on sight!
Yes, I’m declaring open season on adverbs. What is an adverb exactly? Erm… it’s the word I just used: exactly. So I’ll cull it and write instead ‘What is an adverb?’
An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective or a phrase. It answers questions such as ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘where’, or ‘how much’. Such details may be important, but we need to understand the dynamics of information versus pace.
Information versus pace
‘Pace’ identifies the speed at which readers can devour your text. Long sentences and detailed descriptions slow down the pace. Lean sentences and short paragraphs speed it up.
The more detailed information you give, the slower the pace. If you use words that are redundant, the reader may start to skip and even leave.
What does redundancy mean in terms of writing? Test the two definitions I found on the Internet. Which one slows your reading down?
- Redundancy means words that are superfluous.
- Redundancy means the superfluity of a linguistic feature due to its predictability within the overall structure.
Just imagine reading a whole article in the style of the second example. I bet you couldn’t click away fast enough!
Now that we’ve got that redundancy thing cleared up, let’s take a look at the implications.
The redundancy test
How do you know when a word is superfluous? It’s simple. If the meaning stays the same without the word, then you’re faced with a ‘superfluity of a linguistic feature’.
He hurriedly scribbled the number down on a pad
In this case the adverb ‘hurriedly’ is superfluous because the word scribbling already implies writing fast. The sentence ‘He scribbled the number down on a pad’ is leaner and stronger.
John got up and walked restlessly to the window.
Here, the word ‘restlessly’ is redundant because the restlessness is already shown in the action.
Some writers like to use not only one, but two adverbs. For example: She really, truly cared for him. In this case, consider culling one of the adverbs, or even both. Here, you would end up with: She cared for him.
In a recent guest post pitch I found this sentence: As writers it’s normal to jump both mentally and actually from one project to another.
That’s a very athletic sentence … which would benefit from some brutal editing.
Should we let some adverbs live?
According to Master Editor Sol Stein in his book Stein on Writing there are two rules for letting adverbs live:
- Keep an adverb that supplies necessary information. Example: He tried running faster and fell. If he’s already running, you must keep ‘faster’. If you remove the adverb the sentence means that he fell as soon as he started running.
- Keep and adverb that helps the reader visualize the precise image you want to project. Example: She drove crazily, frightening the oncoming traffic.
Pace is better than pretty
Many writers try to improve their writing by making it ‘pretty’. They try to stuff their text full of colorful adverbs and adjectives. Wrong! Lean sentences that heighten the pace keep readers from falling off the page.
Improve your writing now
A simple way to improve your writing is to take a piece you’ve written and highlight all adverbs. Then try to delete as many as possible. Your readers will thank you.
Have YOU got examples of how killing an adverb strengthens writing? Please share them with us in the comments.