Skip to main content
Publish date:

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. 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.)

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.”

(Looking to attend a writers' conference? Start here.)

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.)

Image placeholder title

How to Blog a Book by Nina Amir discusses
how to slowly release a novel online to generate
interest in your writing and work.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

How To Find the Right Professional Editor for Your Writing

How To Find the Right Professional Editor for Your Writing

It's not enough to know when your manuscript is ready for a professional edit—it's knowing who is the right fit to do the editing. Here, Tiffany Yates Martin discusses how to find the right professional editor for your writing.

From Script

Understanding the Writer and Agent Relationship (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, read an intimate interview with Verve Literary Agent and Partner David Boxerbaum about the state of the spec market, the relationship between a writer and agent, and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Ending Your Story Too Soon

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Ending Your Story Too Soon

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is ending your story too soon.

FightWrite™: Fight Scenes with Magic

FightWrite™: Fight Scenes With Magic

In this post, trained fighter and author Carla Hoch explores the process of writing fight scenes with magic—how to make the unbelievable believable, how limitations bring us closer to our characters, and more.

Invoice Template for Freelance Writers

Invoice Template for Freelance Writers

If you're a freelance writer who is able to secure assignments, an essential tool you'll need is an invoice. In this post, Writer's Digest Senior Editor Robert Lee Brewer shares a very basic and easy invoice template for freelance writers to get the job done (and get paid).

3 Things Being a Broadway Wig Master Taught Me About Storytelling

3 Things Being a Broadway Wig Master Taught Me About Storytelling

A career behind the curtain helped Amy Neswald in creating her own stories. Here, the author shares 3 things being a broadway wig master taught her about storytelling.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Out of Control

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Out of Control

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let things get a little out of control.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Next Steps

Here are the final steps for the 14th annual November PAD Chapbook Challenge! Use December and the beginning of January to revise and collect your poems into a chapbook manuscript. Here are some tips and guidelines.

NaNoWriMo’s Over … Now What?

NaNoWriMo’s Over … Now What?

After an intense writing challenge, you might feel a little lost. Here are some tips from Managing Editor and fellow Wrimo Moriah Richard for capitalizing on your momentum.