5th Law of Joni’s writing Bible

Thou shalt remove superfluous adverbs from thy prose.

When every writer starts out, we have a tendency to whip out those lovely “ly” words (yes I am aware that lovely is an ly word) to try to get our point across.  It’s not our fault.  We learn it in grade school.  Our teachers want us to learn vocabulary and word associations by having us use adjectives and adverbs in a flooding way that can damage our writing later.  I will give you an example from my own writing.  This is an excerpt from my first attempted Novel about eight years ago.

“I hurriedly scanned the terrain for signs of life.  The silence densely lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself, the only thing left of the woods; and the breeze that had quickly chilled me on the water had calmed to a sinister motionlessness in the forest remains.”

Yup.  I kept this original version of my story as a reminder of how bad writing can be when you are first learning your craft.  Now, please, don’t misunderstand as we move forward.   Yes, you may use adverbs, but you do NOT need them in every sentence.  One well placed adverb in an entire page can be poignant.  But over use will diminish your verb, your action, by clouding it as adjectives can cloud a subject.

Let’s see how we can rewrite these sentences without most of these adverbs.

“I hurriedly scanned the terrain for signs of life.”  Scanning something is already a quick motion.  If my character were studying the terrain, that would be a slow action.  So if we have already picked the appropriate verb, the adverb “hurriedly” becomes superfluous.   Now it would read.  “I scanned the terrain for signs of life.”

Next: “The silence densely lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself, the only thing left of the woods;”.  Okay so I am not opposed to the word dense in this sentence, but I am opposed to densely.  We can use dense as an adjective rather than an adverb.  (And if I’m being honest I don’t like everything tacked on after the word ‘itself’.  So I will nix that also) Now it reads, “The silence lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself;”

Last: “And the breeze that had quickly chilled me on the water had calmed to a sinister motionlessness in the forest remains.”  Yeah.  That’s just bad.  So many unnecessary words here and not just adverbs.  I will of course be getting rid of quickly and motionlessness.  But to do so will have to rearrange the sentence.  There are many ways to do this, but here is the example I’ll give you.  “The breeze that had chilled me on the water felt sinister in the forest remains.”  More concise, yes?

Lets put them all together and see what we have.

“I scanned the terrain for signs of life.  The silence lay across the charcoal ruins like a being itself; the breeze that had chilled me on the water felt sinister in the forest remains.”

We cut the word count down from 49 words to 34!  And not only did we tighten our prose, but the sentences drive the feeling better than did our wordy quickly’s and hurriedly’s.

My advise is to do a search for these types of words.  Especially “very” and “really” and then revise.   It is better, really.  (see what I did there? HA!)

4th Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

Thou Shalt make thy sentences strong.

Wow, finally a thou shalt instead of a thou shalt not.  Okay, on to strong sentences.

When we read a sentence, what we read first and last stand out to us.  The stuff in between kind of jumbles.  Especially when we are reading quickly.  That is not to say that what we choose to put in the middle doesn’t matter, because those of us who like to soak in every word will read EVERY word.  But in order to make your sentence drive it’s point we often have to do a line edit to ensure that our sentences are conveying our true meaning.

#1.  Ensure that your sentences are tight and well trained.  By this, I mean, don’t use twenty words to express a twelve word or even an eight word thought.  In my writing club, the professor (my amazing cousin) and the group would take one of our longer sentences and break them down to a third or half of what they had been, and try to break them in half again, just to practice tightening up our word selection.  I found this exercise to be most educational and helpful in honing my ongoing skill set.

#2.  When trying to strengthen sentences, use the word you want people to remember at the end.  Words like, lied, dead, killed, elated, overjoyed.  This will make your reader hang on that last image with regards to the subject of your sentence.  And no, this is not possible for every sentence, because your thoughts would become disjointed and let’s face it, not every sentence is life or death.  And if you try to make them so, your story will be melodramatic, and no one will take it seriously when something important does happen.  Not everything can be the most amazing, or fantastic.  (We probably all have that friend who won’t stop saying something like “Phenomenal.”  Overuse of a word in everyday situations will lessen the word’s meaning.  Like, phenomenal cake, or the phenomenal service, or the phenomenal bathroom.  So be careful on this point.)

Example 1:  John finally worked up the courage to walk to the front door so that he could finally ask Julie out on their very first date ever.    (26 words)

What are the problems with that sentence?  First, so many “extra words” -to, so that, finally etc.  Second, the sentence is really laying the experience on too thick.  Show your readers, don’t tell or talk at them.  (We’ll have a section on show not tell soon)  Third, my ending word is not the word I want my readers to hang on to.  (Case in point, my previous sentence.)  My ending word for my example should be date, courage, or even knock to drive home the feeling.

So, lets do a cut.

First cut: John’s courage was high as he knocked on Julies door to ask her on their first date.  (17 words)

I managed to cut this sentence to nearly half of what it was.  (And yes there are dozens of ways to cut down a sentence and that is up to the voice of the writer and his/her character.)  But I am still not pleased with the sentence.  It is still too wordy.  It doesn’t give me the image I want.  I will cut it again.

Second cut:  John walked to Julie’s door, screwed up his courage and knocked.   (11 words)

I like this sentence because it portrays more of what he was feeling.  I also like the word knocked at the end because it leaves us wondering, “Is she there?”  “What will happen when she opens it and sees him?”  We all know what it’s like to knock on the door of someone we like.  It makes our hearts pound.  But we can write the sentence again if the knocking is not what we should remember.  What if it is the courage we need to remember?

Second cut part 2:  John stood in front of Julie’s door and gathered his courage.  (11 words)

This sentence works also, if courage is the thing we want our readers to remember.  Maybe asking Julie out is a pivotal growth moment for our character.  You must choose what is best for your story.

This type of sentence cutting works well for our most verbose sentences.  The ones that just go on and on.  Not running on in the technical sense, but the ones that seem to wander like Frodo trying to get to Mount Doom.  We need to cut a straight path.  And remember, after we cut we add in some of the character building words that will boost our story.

Second cut Finished:  John walked to Julie’s door thinking only of his carefully chosen words as he screwed up his courage and knocked.

Second cut part 2 finished:   John knew it all hinged on this moment in front of Julie’s door and he prayed for courage.