More Word Count: On Adverbs And Words Ending In “ly”

Previously, I talked with you about cutting out the fluff of a long-winded first draft. Lengthy drafts are more boon than bane because there are many ways to economize your word count. As you continue to cut down your first draft by Steven King’s 10 percent rule and, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch recommends, murder your darlings, pay attention to language constructs that can weaken your prose.

On adverbs and words ending in “ly”.

I covered the adverb, “really”, in my earlier Word Count post, but we’ll have a closer look at adverbs because the fact is, if the word ends in “ly” it probab(ly) shouldn’t be in your story.

“Adverbs have their place, but often writers can improve their writing by pruning adverbs.”1

Adverbs serve a distinct purpose, particularly in non-fiction. In fiction, however, the adverb becomes a “telling” word.

You’ll notice in the paragraph above I used the word “particularly”. I could have written, “Adverbs serve a distinct purpose in non-fiction.” In this case however, the word “particularly” was used to weaken the declaration. While it is true that adverbs serve a distinct purpose in non-fiction I could not claim that they do not also have a distinct purpose in fiction.

Adverbs can water-down the impact of a sentence. An adverb can reduce the immediacy of active tense. They force a reader to create their own image rather than “seeing” the story as you tell it.

Let’s see it in an example: “The cat cunningly stalked his prey.”

The word “cunningly” is an adverb. In this instance it describes the way the cat is stalking his prey. This adverb is insubstantial as a descriptive word because the reader must consider what he imagines “cunningly” might look like. A sharper picture could be created by replacing the adverb with sensory description.

Such as: “The cat crouched low to the ground as it stalked on soft toes, ears perked and eyes slit, after his prey.”

This second example is longer but it gives a more precise image. You can “see” this cat. You can see the cunning he uses and don’t have to fill in the blanks or create your own sense of what he is doing.

Remember the adage, “show, don’t tell“? Well, good fiction has a careful balance between showing and telling but examine your manuscript and hunt out those adverbs. When you see one decide if it can be cut or if the sentence could be rewritten with descriptive verbs and adjectives instead of an adverb.

When you’re hunting for darlings to murder you can eliminate many words but you will find that rewriting sentences to avoid depending on the tepid description of adverbs can have the reverse affect. As you cut some words from your draft you add others. The final work will be more compelling but it may not be shorter.

What is important is that your final draft holds the reader’s attention with strong, evocative imagery. Allow your readers to see through the words on the page and lose themselves in the story.

Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

1. Grammar Girl: How to Eliminate Adverbs :: Quick and Dirty Tips

Word Count: Murdering Your Darlings and King’s 10% Rule

Murder Your Darlings ~ Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” ~ Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1914)

First drafts tend to be unusually long winded. We write at length because it is the surest way to express those thoughts and impressions most profound. We over-describe. We add chatter. We include thinking words. In the process of writing a first draft we write with a freedom of expression that is uncensored and unfettered.

A first draft is NOT a final draft.

Recently, a client emailed me with a request to edit the first chapter of their first draft. I don’t recommend hiring an editor for your first draft. The story has barely begun to be formed after your first pass and it requires at least one (preferably two) more drafts before it should be handled by others. In this case, the fact that it was a first draft wasn’t the issue. The fact that it was an 11,000 word count first chapter was.

There are no hard and fast rules about how long a story should be. Even the standard guides aren’t concrete. A story is as long as it takes to tell the story. But there are conventions that we tend to follow to increase our odds of being read. Very few readers will be comfortable facing such lengthy chapters.

When Writing Long Is Writing Long-Winded

The best way to handle the obesity of that first draft is to follow Stephen King’s Ten Percent Rule. In 1966, when King was still in high school he received a rejection slip that offered profound advice for the young writer.1

“Not bad but puffy,” the editor wrote. “You need to review for length.”

That wise editor gave King a winning formula:

“2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10%”
~ Stephen King (2002)

But you’ve got lots of darlings in your first draft. How do you really know where to cut the fat and prune the weeds? Which words are fat? Which words are weeds? Each story is different but there are some words we use in modern language that are unnecessary when writing fiction.

Words You Should Search And Destroy

When you examine a draft for superfluous words or seek ways to be more concise you can sharpen the language of the manuscript and reduce the word count. There are a selection of words you can almost always cut without changing the meaning of a sentence. The first five words you can cut are:

  1. Just: The only time this word is actually a word is when you use it to mean, “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness”.2 There are other meanings but the word is cruelly misused so when it appears in your manuscript odds are it can be obliterated.
  2. Really: I would “really” like to obliterate the word “really”. This is an adverb that is always underwhelming. It has no substance or measure. If you feel inclined toward hyperbole find a more distinct and effective word and no, “totally” doesn’t count.
  3. Quite: This word often feels like it is trying to justify its existence. It is timid and quiet which is perhaps why the word “quite” often gets misspelled as “quiet”. The words in your story should be empowered and confident.
  4. Perhaps: Sometimes your characters may use this to indicate uncertainty. The trouble is, “perhaps” reflects uncertainty to the reader too so use it with care and only in dialogue.
  5. That: This word needs careful consideration. It’s not always one that can be cut without thought like the four above. In that sentence, and this one, the word “that” is used to define the subject of the sentence. But sometimes, even when used in this way, it is not necessary.

A Sixth Word To Cut

  1. So: My personal pet-peeve word is “so”. I believe this word can be obliterated in every single instance. Prove me wrong! If you can think of a sentence that requires the word “so” to make sense, share it in the comments. Until you can, search and destroy “so” in all of your writing.

What other words do you feel should be obliterated from fiction and what other ways do you reduce the word count of your first draft by ten percent?

1. Poynter Online, The Ten Percent Solution First Draft by Chip Scanlan
2. – just (adj.) 1. guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness: We hope to be just in our understanding of such difficult situations.

Photo Credit: 09-18-07 © archives
Photo Credit: 11-27-08 © mark wragg