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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Adverbs: Make Them into Magical Writing Aids

We're all writers these days. We blog. We text. We may even promote our own businesses by writing books or copy for ads. So why not make what we do stand out. One way to do that is to use a metaphor or simile.

You may say, easier said than done. But wait! You can pick out much maligned adverbs and turn them into metaphor gold.

Adverbs aren’t necessarily the writers’ enemies they’ve been made out to be. Obviously they serve a function or they would disappear from our language. The trouble is, writers often use them as a crutch. I like making them into magic writing aids, instead.

Remember the Reader's Digest feature “Toward More Picturesque Speech”? That's what we’re after and we're trying to use great metaphors and similes to do it.

Once when I was speaking to the Small Publishers of North America (SPAN), someone in the audience asked if there was a site that would give him a list of good metaphors to improve the imagery in his writing. I told him that if there was, it would probably be a list of clichés or a list of what would fast become clichés once everyone started using them. That was before I knew this adverb trick which works better than any list or I would have shared this tip with him.

A search for adverbs in your copy can yield metaphors or similes, the kinds of associations that allow you to find and insert flecks of solid gold into your work.

When you’re searching for adverbs you may first determine that they are redundant. “She ran quickly” is an example because running, by its nature, is quick. But you must have wanted something more or you wouldn’t have used “quickly.” So ask yourself, “quickly as what?” You might come up with “quickly as a gazelle.” You’ll tell yourself, “that’s a cliché” and try again.

Perhaps the new try would include a stab at a metaphor. “She became a blur, bicycle spokes in motion.”

Sometimes this approach works beautifully. Sometimes--you may have noticed--not. When that happens just ditch the adverb and try strengthening the verb. My thesaurus suggests race, dart, and gallop.

This kind of edit can open doors for better imagery—help give your reader a visual or other sensory experience. It can also suggest possibilities for humor—something that may be welcomed by readers of all kinds—including those bored with the same old abbreviations and quickie, uncaring statements.

One of the advantages of editing adverbs--indeed any kind of systematic editing --is that you'll begin to write more concisely. Or at least more memorably. Even your text may take on a voice of their own.

When you do, the gremlins I talk about in The Frugal Editor may spot a professional and move to greener fields


Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

A Tip for Writers:


My multi award-winning The Frugal Editor is now in its second edition—as an e-book (the print edition is coming a bit later.) It’s been reformatted, updated and expanded.

A Tip for Readers' Tip:

I mentioned that many readers—you know, general folk—are writing more these days. And publishing, too, as part of their day jobs. Here's a booklet for those who want to know more about printing and self-publishing. Titled A Guide To Book Printing & Self-Publishing, it is free and frugal and especially good if you are just beginning to accrue knowledge about the big, difficult self-publishing world. It’s from Gorham Printing

2011 Noble list Please nominate a book that fits within the parameters listed in this year's Noble Back to Literature column. Explain in 25 word or less why your nomination is a work of literary merit and sent directly to me. Nominations must be signed with your real name, e-mail address and a URL if you have one. Email


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