Subverting Adverbs and Clichés

Writers constantly have rules thrown at them left, right, and center. Show, don’t tell! Stop using so many dialogue tags! More sensory detail! More tension! Speed up the pace! Yada yada yada … it can become overwhelming, yes? I used to feel overwhelmed by it all too. In fact, I still do sometimes. It’s hard enough to get the words on the page, let alone consider how to put them there.

In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says that in order to not be overwhelmed, a writer needs to focus on short assignments. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how that little picture frame reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. Basically, if you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. I believe the same applies to learning the craft of writing. If aspiring writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: RebeccaReynolds won.)


Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 10.31.46 AM           jessica headshot - Copy

Column by Jessica Bell, Australian-native contemporary fiction author
and poet who also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT
publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education,
HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage
Learning. She is the co-publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal,
and the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek
island of Ithaca. For more information about Jessica please visit her:
Website | Blog | Twitter | Facebook. Find her newest book, ADVERBS &
CLICHES IN A NUTSHELL on Amazon US or Amazon UK.


Today I’d like to draw your attention to one of the most common criticisms aspiring writers face, to “absolutely avoid adverbs and clichés like the plague.” But see, right now, I just used one of each. Because they come naturally, and we frequently utilize them in everyday speech. But in fiction, too many adverbs and clichés weaken your prose. It’s considered “lazy writing,” because it means we don’t have to show what’s happening.

If your manuscript has too many adverbs and clichés, it most likely means that the emotion you felt while writing it is not going to translate to the reader in the same way. Never underestimate the weakness of adverbs and clichés. You’d be surprised how vivid your writing will become once they are subverted.

Sure, clichés exist because they stem from things many of us experience in real life, and you may argue that they are “relatable,” so why not use them? But the way in which one experiences things isn’t always the same. As writers, it’s your duty to make readers experience your story from a unique point of view. Your point of view.

(How many agents should you contact at one time?)

Before we go into details about how adverbs and clichés weaken prose, and how you can subvert them, first you need to understand that they aren’t always going to be a problem. In fact, you don’t need to go overboard trying to eliminate every single adverb and cliché in your manuscript. Because sometimes, they just work. They serve a purpose. Especially in dialogue. Of course, it also depends a lot on your character’s voice.

For example, sometimes it’s more concise to write, “She lightly knocked on the door.” Not every single action needs to be poetic and unique. Sometimes you need to write exactly what someone is doing because it’s not important enough to draw attention to. Also, if we just wrote, “She knocked on the door,” we’d have no idea whether it was loud or not. And if this action wasn’t all that significant, it would be a bit too wordy to say something like, “She knocked on the door as if her hand were as light as a feather.” (Look, cliché again, they creep in so easily, don’t they?)

But consider this: What if this person’s light knocking on the door was paramount to the story? What if it was a moment of suspense? What if behind that door was a man this person was afraid of? What if this person was anticipating being verbally abused for the interruption? Then this ‘lightly knocking on the door’ would have a significant purpose, yes?

The action of lightly knocking on that door is no longer a simple transitional action that moves the character from A to B. It is in your manuscript for a reason. You put it there for your readers to feel the same apprehension your character feels. And no adverb or cliché, as you can see, is going to draw attention to that moment of intensity like something crafted for it exclusively.

So let’s try our hand at making this moment pop. How about, “She tapped on the door. It echoed in her ears like an axe to a carcass.”

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So how does this better convey its intended sentiment? I’d say the fact that this person perceives their tap on the door as a deep, echoing, and unpleasant sound means that they are anxious about the reaction it is going to elicit. Also note that I’ve chosen the verb (tap) which means “a light knock,” so there is no reason for me to use the adverb “lightly.”

So how exactly can we approach the subversion of adverbs and clichés? For starters, play around with similes and metaphors when you’re trying to convey emotion, and for action, use strong verbs to show it happening in real time. For example, instead of using something clichéd like “the streets were so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” find a small detail to zoom in on that shows how quiet the streets are. Put a lonely-looking man kicking rubbish down an abandoned street, perhaps. Have him drag his feet. Perhaps the sound can be heard from two blocks away where your narrator is waiting for a bus that never arrives.

Most of the time, if you think of the small details, rather than the bigger picture, you’ll avoid adverbs and clichés naturally. And remember to be experimental. You never know what you might come up with.

GIVEAWAY: Jessica is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: RebeccaReynolds won.)


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112 thoughts on “Subverting Adverbs and Clichés

  1. Russ64

    I let my characters do the talking and describe my scenes with color and care. If Angie’s checking on her child who should be sleeping, she not going to bang on the door, unless her child is screaming and the door is locked.

    Adverbs do have their place whether your well dress date wears a tux or a zootsuit.

  2. suzyturner

    I’m forever stopping myself mid sentence when I realise one of those little little blighters has crept in! But I do like to use the odd cliche in dialogue… it can really help to demonstrate a character’s personality, don’t you think?
    Thanks for the great advice 🙂

  3. Heather K.

    Great advice! I’ve heard warnings against cliches before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been warned against adverbs so convincingly. Even in writing classes!

  4. LouTorres

    Interesting article! Now I know that I have to correct some typing errors. I’m learning English, so read this type of article helps me learn better. Keep writing more! They are really helpful!

  5. Dr. Les Moore

    When I was a young man, my mentor was a professional gambler. I have wanted to tell my story about that time in my life for a long time, the way he taught my the ways of the world, and human behavior. But I never new just how to keep my story moving. I am beginning to realize that writing is a crat, like laying bricks. You do it one step at a time. I need to start reading more books that will teach ne how to write. I have had all the wrong people in my life all of my life. Maybe they were there to give me characters to write about,

    Your article revealed to me my need to slow my pace down and to look close at the details of my surroundings as well as my writings.

  6. CatdaBrat

    I really appreciate this article, because it reminds me to go back into my novel manuscript and search for unnecessary adverbs and cliches. I am near the end of the 11th chapter, but it never hurts to comb through on a hunt. Thanks again!

  7. rctbone

    Love and serve with compassion – a one way street of action that returns home, miraculously from many directions, without loss to anyone. That seems good to me.

  8. Robin.Deffendall

    Thanks for this. I’ve been caught torturing readers with adverbs on many occasions. There is one particularly (oops!) flagrant story I can remember from high school that was read aloud to the entire class. I was mortified.

    But the tip to think small was a good one. I’ll keep it in mind.

    And I’ll share this link on my blog and with my writers groups. and the book will be added to my buy list. I’m collecting all the writing books. All of them, feel free to help my book budget buy sending a winning copy my way!

  9. ann101

    I don’t have too much of a problem with cliches in my writing, but adverbs definitely (damn it, there’s another one!) appear everywhere. I swear they breed inside my story while I’m not looking…

  10. RebeccaReynolds

    “Most of the time, if you think of the small details, rather than the bigger picture, you’ll avoid adverbs and clichés naturally.”

    This is possibly the most useful advice I’ve ever read on this particular theme. I think anyone who ever puts pen to paper will naturally fall into cliche at some point or rely on adverbs, but it really does help to have some practical advice on how to avoid doing it. And I don’t know about anyone else, but my idea of “practical advice” isn’t some red-faced teacher telling you to “show, don’t tell” and not being terribly helpful when you ask for a little guidance on the subject.

    And thank you for pointing out that adverbs do indeed have their place. I’ve read so many articles that simply refuse to acknowledge that they have any worth at all, and it irritates me. There are mundane moments in every story. Moments that aren’t unimportant, that do need to be included but aren’t meant to be pivotal or emotionally charged. In these cases, the adverb is sufficient. Trying to make every single sentence loaded with significance is a mistake in my opinion.

  11. byPatKeegan

    What a great lesson. I had to laugh. After reading this, i went to MS Word and did a search on “ly” just to see how many adverbs (the regular kind) that i had: 2,503 to be exact (out of about 145,000 words). What a great eye-opener. I’m shocked at how many times i use the words “simply”, “completely” and “clearly”. Looks like I’ve got some work to do when i get to the editing phase :). Thank you truly for this wonderful gift of insight!

  12. Lorene Brubaker

    Thank you for writing this article Jessica. I’m new at this writing stuff and totally guilty of adverb-overuse. Yes, cliche’s are so easy to fall back on and, like you said, used in our everyday lives, that sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve used them until I start editing. Your article taught me to be more aware of word usage. Sometimes I just get so into the ‘zone’ that my characters take over and I lose control…somewhat. lol Anyway, great article and I would LOVE a copy of your book. Cheers…

  13. Ev

    Jessica, I loved your article! I think it’s the first one about adverbs I’ve ever read that made me think–“This writer knows what she’s talking about.” I get so tired of people saying we need to get rid of all the adverbs. As you pointed out, there’s a time and a place for them, but we need to make sure we’re not overusing them. Your example of the door knocking was excellent. I would love to have your book.

  14. Carla Golian

    Ooh, I will eat up your books!! pick me pick me!! 😉

    I just self-published my first Book of Poems and Short Stories: Dreams of Love. It would be cool to reference to it with all I will learn from your book.

    I also want ‘Show & Tell in a Nutshell’!! :))

    Thank you!!

  15. barryt2525

    Jessica, great article. Your topic without question is a challenge for the new writer. Thank you for the information. I will be going through my current project to see how often I’ve fallen into the trap.

  16. Kath

    I’d love to win a copy of that book. I find the more I learn and absorb, the more I grow as a writer. It’s like seeing new colours that never existed before, or a vague world coming into clear, detailed focus with every new skill learned. Thank you so much, Jessica, for all your help!

  17. Kim Peters Burress

    At 51 I’m about to be laid off from a technology client support desk for a major Wall Street firm. All my life I’ve thought about being a writer (finding out I’m a descendant of James Fenimore Cooper probably started it). My co-workers, friends & family all joke about how verbose I can be, using what they call $10 words. I’ve disliked working in my field for several years and am considering the lay-off a blessing in disguise. I know I have a lot to learn, but l’m a quick study. One day I plan to visit Australia because I missed the chance to live there back in 1992 (military).

  18. curare-kringle

    Thank you for the article, Jessica. I have read a few self-editing books and have tried to put it in practice but as you mention, finding the right balance is not always easy.
    Hope luck comes my way and I get the chance to read your book and learn more.
    Most importantly, I would like to review thereafter so that more people could hear the word and benefit from it.

    Best of luck promoting your book!

  19. Raine54

    I am working on a first novel and need your book. I educated myself so far by reading 20 books from our public library. I am careful with adverbs, but innately has been a sticky one. This is a great article.

  20. janreber

    I’m very super excited to apply what I’ve read in your article to my ms. Removing extra adverbs is crucially critical to tight writing. Only time will tell if I am successful at catching any cliche’s that loom on the horizon of my finished work.
    Thanks for a useful article!

  21. meyetteef

    Thanks for your pearls of wisdom. I fall into the adverb trap often, and two things you said will help. First, how important the action is to the plot, and second, look at the details not the big picture. I may pin these two up on my wall as reminders.

  22. Val Tobin

    I just finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” and he also stressed eliminating as many adverbs as possible. Yes, it’s something you hear all the time, but it’s also something that can’t be stressed enough. I’m in the process of revising the first draft of my novel. I will go on a hunting expedition for those insidious adverbs.

  23. xcntrk

    Howdy Miss Jessica,

    I would love to win one of your books. I am sure that they would help me with my writing career.

    Thank you and have a GR8 day.

  24. bryyan48

    A beginner, I am. I appreciate the tips pertaining to writing a better novel. Thank you, Jessica. If I could apply this “less adverbs and cliches” to my actual life, imagine how fruitful life might unfold. Smiles.

  25. georgiajanet

    I enjoyed this article as much as ants enjoy a picnic. It really opened my eyes like peeling skin off an onion! It knocked my socks off and very nearly sent me over the moon. All kidding aside, this piece was very informative and useful. Now, I need to go and edit….again….Thanks!

  26. IvyJ

    Ah, adverbs–we have a love/hate relationship. Sometimes they work in a sentence, but I think I often put them where they are not needed. It seems I have about a thousand of them contained in my seventy-five thousand word WIP. I was quite surprised at first when I saw, but then I realized that adverbs are always the words I jump to when I can’t think of what else to say. I would certainly love a copy of that book. 🙂

  27. Kelsie Gates

    I know about cliche’s, but what is an adverb? I did’nt do well in english in high school. What I really need is a book that explains english and punctuation that an adult with a childs brain can understand. If anyone is aware of such a book please let me know.

  28. Cherokee007

    I was once told by a co-worker that I speak almost entirely in cliches. She was right! I was shocked, and have hopefully changed my ways.

  29. roberto99

    Thank you Jessica – will take a look at your book too 😉

    I couldn’t agree more – as a beginning fiction writer (but long-time experience with many types of non-fiction) my first-draft is 100% groan-worthy when it comes to adverbs.

    But it is fun learning to replace them and it DOES make the writing far stronger.

    It’s a huge challenge to banish them completely (<– see?) – ie ask yourself, "what would I have to say/write to make this work without the adverb?"

    More work? Yes.

    OK to be lazy in First Draft I think.

    Then be vicious with each revision!

    I've also found it quite entertaining reading top-selling books and finding a staggering number! There is hope for us yet 😉


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