How to Make Your Writing Leaner and Meaner

    make your writing leaner - bodybuilder

    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?

    1. Redundancy means words that are superfluous.
    2. 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com. Grab a copy of her free report, How to Create an Irresistible Lead Magnet in Less Than 5 Hours. In her “spare” time, Mary’s also the brains behind AlistBlogging.net. and GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Jasper says:

      You are mis-defining redundancy. Coming from an ICT background it’s a very common term – something you want to avoid at perhaps not all costs, but quite many anyway.

      In ICT, redundancy is when you save the same information more than once. For example, on a forum, you could store the username and date of registration for each post on the forum (after all, you do display it at every post, right?). However, this would be redundant, as you would be storing this information – which is unique for a user, not for a post – more than once. So instead, we only store a user id (which is usually just some number) with the post and then store the username and date of registration together with the user id elsewhere.

      In language the meaning of redundancy is almost the same – it’s when you are saying the same thing more than once. While there is a name for the exact thing you are doing when are talking about “green grass”, it’s also a prime example of being redundant – grass is green, yet you are adding that this grass was green as well (note that there are always contexts in which examples do not hold – an example here would be if you had been talking about grass that had turned yellow previously).
      However, in your example, the second line does actually add new information, how it’s due to predictability – something the first sentence simply did not say. The added information may be superfluous (or it may not be – depending on the context), but as it’s not the same information a second time, it’s not redundant.

      I would also like to say I disagree with your conclusion. Pace is a tool. Pace is not a flow, pace is not a one-way street. Pace is something to understand and to bend to your will. Adverbs are a good means to control pace (though repetition is another major tool). Arguing that one should always aim for the faster pace is misguided or at least an attempt to oversimplify the wrong things. One should aim for the pace he or she wishes to achieve.

      Perhaps you do encounter a lot of (unexperienced) writers that aim for a pace too slow for the article they are writing or even do not grasp the concept of pace well enough to manipulate it, but that is absolutely no excuse to say that when writing one should use as few adverbs as possible in order to step up the pace.

    • Am I alone is thinking this is both a wonderful and a hilarious article?

      i am consistently drawn to humor-writing. I know why now. It’s typically punchy, clear, succinct!

      An extra-good friend recently told me i sometimes write pedantically. NOW I “get” what she means! Just your mention of pace, followed by these definitions demo “pedantic.”

      >>
      1. Redundancy means words that are superfluous.
      2. Redundancy means the superfluity of a linguistic feature due to its predictability within the overall structure.<<

      Here in Texas we say "you can stick a fork in that – it's done!" I'm clear adverbs and I are done!

      Thanks!

    • I agree with Randy R. Adverbs are not the enemy. They are a crutch. Stronger verbs lead to fewer, more potent adverbs

    • Randy R. says:

      The problem is not ‘really’ with adverbs, but with the ‘efficient and effective’ use of words. They were created to modify the verb, to clarify, “so that the reader knows precisely what is meant”. Used correctly, they also make a sentence,or a whole paragraph, shorter, ‘more concise’. Without them, ‘or without a proper use of them’, you may wind up with a lot of short,’ choppy, mechanical, emotionless’ sentences. Each day, I see dozens of email messages (using short, ‘quick paced’ sentences) on a particular issue being sent back and forth between individuals. And all those messages could have been avoided, if the first writer had written concerned about clarity instead of speed. I could have been more efficient and effective, if I had just edited the wordy sentences above’.

    • Great information I think that I actually use too many adverbs. 😉

    • Aileen says:

      Mary, this is a fantastic writing lesson. Thank you for this! I do love words and the poetic value they can offer. – yet, I am aware that we need to be verbally efficient in order to hold the readers attention. Your suggestion for shooting adverbs is a brillinat step towards my goal of word trimming 🙂

    • Farnoosh says:

      Mary, the best reference for better writing is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. He cleans up clutter from phrases better than any other reference I have seen on English language – and a topic on which we desperately need to work! Thank you for the distinction between which adverb can stay and which must go!

    • I assume were only talking about descriptive adverbs, right? Or does this include adverbs such as: “today”, “now”, “often”, “every day”, “here”, “there”, etc..? Although I guess I could see how this applies to those adverbs as well when they aren’t necessary.

    • Marci says:

      “Lean sentences that heighten the pace keep readers from falling off the page.” I love the image you’ve created here. And, it is so true. If a post is to wordy, I find myself wandering off to another place.

      I’m working on my pace with shorter paragraphs. Now, I will tackle my words too!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks Mary. Always keen on culling adverbs myself. Enjoyed that post – and I didn’t skip or leave. Agree with some of the above comments that there are times when adverbs appear to be essential, but in such cases I think they should prompt the writer to ask: is there a better verb I could use? There might not be, but at least the adverb is then used carefully.

    • Cynthia says:

      How about “He scribbled the number.” ?

      No need for “down on a pad.”

    • I reall yenjoyed this post, and always love getting a Write to Done post in my inbox as it’s almost always informative, inspiring or both.

      I just have one quibble with this one, that a couple of other people have also picked up, and it’s the “restlessly walked” example. :/

      I think as the lone sentence given here it is necessary as ‘walked’ alone could mean a million different things. However, I think the context could alter that completely. If John’s actions before this sentence had reflected his behaviour, ie sitting down, standing up, moving around, fidgeting, then getting up and going to the window would be another action indicating his restlessness. But if he’s been sitting still for 3 hours and eventually gets up and walks to the window he’s more sedated than restless!

      So while I completely agree that adverbs are often totally, utterly redundant and uselessly, er, useless, and should be ruthlessly be struck from writing where they are superfluously adding words for the sake of it 😉 I do think that the context should be taken into consideration.

      Thanks 🙂

    • The problem with adverbs is that they’re a crutch. If they aren’t unnecessary, they are are a substitute for something more descriptive and evocative.

      For example, your “drove crazily” sentence generalizes things that can be much more specific. She can cut over lanes without signalling, forcing a driver to slam his brakes to avoid rear-ending her. She can weave in her lane and her side-view mirror can scrape the paint off the side of an adjacent car, showering sparks on the blacktop.

      The presence of an adverb is a red flag to re-evaluate the sentence and figure out a better way to write it.

      Adverbs can be used to supply verbal irony, if you’re into wordplay. The adverb can undercut or twist the meaning of the verb in a way that’s funny or appealing and might be preferable to using a precise verb to describe the action.

      Adverbs like “really” can add verisimilitude to your voice and aren’t as jarring to my eye as adverbs attached to things like tags. I don’t see any reason you can’t drop in the occasional “probably” or “generally” to qualify certain statements.And adverbs can be used to describe the temporal relation of events; I don’t have a problem with “recently.”

      “Suddenly,” however, is not a word you should associate with.

    • Hi,

      I agree with the points being made here.

      It took my wife many years to convince me that, in writing, adverbs should be culled without mercy. I still think they have their place in the drama of spoken language.

      However “restless” is not redundant in the example cited above, “John got up and walked restlessly to the window. Here, the word ‘restlessly’ is redundant because the restlessness is already shown in the action.”

      In this case “restlessly” IS contributing otherwise unavailable information. Possibly John heard a noise outside, possibly John was waiting for a late visitor, etc., etc. Here “restlessly” gives us important information about John’s mood. Possibly it would have been better expressed: “Restlessly, John got up and walked to the window,” where the adverb modifies both “got up” and “walked” and is describing his overall state of mind.

      OK, I know it is pedantic, and I do have a life ….

    • Sandra Lee says:

      I hope the adverbs don’t get mad! 🙂

    • Adalia says:

      Mary, I will take you up on that – writing is my challenge – I am redundant and wordy. My association with the A list blogging Club has brought a new awareness to my writing skills. I am already seeing a much needed improvement.

    • Mary, I love this post – also Sol Stein’s books. (Have you read, Eats Shoots, and Leaves? A very funny book on writing and grammar.)

      In my freshman year of college my English professor circled every adverb and adjective she thought unnecessary with red marker. You could see from across the room who’s paper had the most circles. It was embarrassing, but effective.

      • Hi Angela – Eats, Shoots, and Leaves looks like a great book! So many grammar books are boring and give me hives…

    • sylvia says:

      Hmm… While I am a big supporter of the War on Redundancy, I don’t think it fair to place all the blame on adverbs.

      As stated at the start, an adverb is a word that “modifies a verb, an adjective or a phrase.” The key word in the definition, here, is ‘modifies.’ When the adverb is not modifying by adding value to the sentence, then it is redundant; however, when allowed to perform its job correctly, it is an irreproachable member of any good sentence. This, of course, is the basis of Stein’s rules.

      Unfortunately, the examples given in the “redundancy test” introduced just before the rules actually defy them: “Jack got up and walked to the window” DOES NOT equal “Jack got up and walked restlessly to the window.” Here, the adverb is most certainly NOT redundant, it provides additional important information that alters the action.

      Imagine you are an actor playing “Jack” and these are the instructions of your script: which gives you a better idea of how to perform your role?

      This entire article could be redacted to criticise adjectives without changing much. Adjectives are just as frequently abused, contributing to repetitive verbal clutter, with such painful encounters as “tiny, little” somethings and “young kids,” for example.

      Redundancy is a problem. Wordiness is a problem for pace. These problems are not equal, and adverbs are not the sole (or main) culprit of either.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Sylvia. I was planning to kill adjectives in another post… =[

    • shanna says:

      I love this, Mary. I waged war last year on adverbs via Twitter–Death to Adverbs I called it.

      Each select word has it’s own currency, a value that is diminished when surrounded by the redundant or the superfluous. Tight, concise, and direct writing wins every time 🙂

    • Rhonda says:

      Do you know who is guilty of this? J K Rowlings — the author of the Harry Potter books. She loves all of those “-ly” words.

      • Ah well – it may work in fantasy novels. Readers on the Net all suffer from ADD and so writing. Has. To be. Crisp.

    • Adalia says:

      WOW! I learned a lot from this post – I am a redundant writer. I did a post on cupcakes and I used “fun” twice for dramatic effect – Ouch!

      Thanks Mary, I needed this, a very informative article. This confirms that I should enroll in a writing class – hmmmm.

      • Writing class? I’ve got a better suggestion: In the A-List Blogger Club I mentor member from pitch to perfect guest post – and then publish it on Write to Done or Goodlife ZEN. It’s fun, and it’s hands-on writing training. No redundancy allowed 🙂 I love to see participants of this open mentoring thread in the forum help writers to go from ordinary to awesome! (I’m not trying to sell you anything, Adalia – my enthusiasm just got the better of me…)

    • “The Road to Hell is Paved in Adverbs” from Stephen King’s book On Writing. It is a quote I hold right up against my writers’ heart all of the time. You missed one word that adjectives make writers’ look like and it is amateurish. My four year old nephew just discovered adverbs and they are his favorite words. Great article! 🙂

      • I like that, Tarah: “The Road to Hell is Paved in Adverbs’. It’s funny – and true.

    • Mary – You’ve preached one of my favorite suggestions for improving writing (I used to teach writing to law students – who are the world’s the greatest lovers of adverbs). I moved on to editing legal writing (but had to proceed with caution as the adverb lovers included my bosses!). Some of the worst (and repeat) offenders that populate legal writing (and speaking): CLEARLY, OBVIOUSLY, UNQUESTIONINGLY. (Can you hear the lawyer-speak echoing with these adverbs?)

      In a similar vein, I pushed my students to strike the verb “to be” from their writing, substituting active verbs and strong nouns for tepid verbs + adverbs. Why use “he was a fast runner” or even “he ran quickly” when you can use “he dashed,” “sprinted,” or “flew”?

      • Ah- I love those example you use instead of ‘he was a fast runner’! Thanks for that, Ami

    • diana says:

      Mary,

      A post after my own heart. Make every word count. Succinct writing about interesting topics will keep the reader involved, which, as writers, is our intended goal.

      I taught English as a second language for years in Hamburg. I often cautioned my business students to use prudence with both adverbs and adjectives. They are there to create drama and effect. When used without discretion, they have the opposite effect – they confuse and bore the reader/listener.

      In the end, it’s in language as it is in life – simple is better, less is more.

      LG

      • Hi Andrea – it’s took me a while to understand that simple is good when it comes to writing.

    • cmdweb says:

      I was once advised, as an exercise, to remove all adjectives and adverbs from a piece of writing. Although the result was somewhat bland, the effect of the exercise was not lost on me and did serve to show just how direct and ‘pacey’ you can make your text if you pay attention.

      • Yes – it’s a great practice to remove all adverbs and adjectives, and then to choose only a few to put back in!


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