Writing Newbie Tip: Adverbs can also indicate you’re telling

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Photo by Rae Grimm (bloodylery)

I’m a relatively new writer learning the craft and am painfully aware I have a long way to go. I learn new things every day. This post today is for new writers like me, because often I think more experienced writers forget what it’s like when you’re first learning. They already know so many tools and methods that a lot of it is now instinctual and so might not think to state things that are obvious to them.

One thing I’ve noticed as I write, edit and critique other work is that I can learn something conceptually, but until it clicks I haven’t really learned it. Case in point is the writer’s bugaboo: adverbs.

We’ve all read and heard that you should avoid adverbs when possible. This won’t be the usual admonition to scrutinize each one to make sure you’re not using a weak verb. I think that concept is easily grasped once a newbie reads about it.

Sometimes, though you’ll run across a little more in-depth tip that tells you adverbs may also indicate you’re telling. Okay, so I read that handy tip but it didn’t quite sink in as something I really understood until I finally saw a piece in my own writing earlier this summer that made me sit up and go “oh, dummy!” The passage was when my hero was picking the lock on a desk drawer. I had him pull out his nice leather pouch of picks (starting to show, good) but then I stopped the showing short by concluding that sentence with ‘and he went expertly to work’ — When I came across that I thought of how I could show that he was an expert and not just tell, so I did some quick research online and then rewrote it to show him picking out a certain tool and then closing his eyes as he listened to the tumblers, etc. I never said he was an expert, but, hopefully, I showed that he was by how he did the job.

BEFORE (From the second draft):

Taking out his set of lock picks enclosed in a soft leather pouch, he went expertly to work. Soon the lock and drawer opened with a satisfying click and rasp of wood against wood. A leather-bound journal was the sole occupant. Surely this would have the evidence he sought.

AFTER (From the third draft):

Phineas pulled out his set of lock picks enclosed in a worn, leather pouch and rolled it open. After taking an assessing glance at the lock, he slid out a small hooked pick and a standard torque wrench from his array of tools. He inserted the pick and closed his eyes, the better to concentrate and visualize the number and position of pins in the lock. The edge of his tongue darted back and forth at the edge of his lips while he worked the pick.

When the final pin clicked into place a few minutes later, Phineas smiled. He tugged on the handle, the rasp of wood against wood like the sigh of a lover giving up her secrets, revealing a leather-bound journal as the sole occupant. Surely this would have the evidence he sought.

Notice that when you show, the passage will be longer. I’m sure I have other things wrong with the new passage, but this is the stage I’m in as a writer… If any experienced writers are still reading this post, what other things can I do to help improve it?

Now, whenever I come across one in my draft (since hopefully I’ve already gotten rid of the ones that are propping up weak verbs), I’m like ‘a-ha’ and try to see how I can show instead of tell.

Have you had any ‘a-ha’ moments when learning the craft?

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5 Comments

  1. THANK you! This is the best example I’ve seen on the whole ‘adverb’ thing – as well as the show don’t tell thing. Great post!

    Reply
  2. Fantastic post! I really liked the way you improved the scene in the third draft. It was so much more authentic! Nice work :)

    Looks like you’ve got a great blog here :) Hopefully I’ll be back to do some more reading.

    Reply
  3. Oh, also, I’ve awarded you the Versatile Blogger Award. You can come over to my blog at http://www.nickhight.blogspot.com to claim it, if you’d like. :)

    Reply
  4. Great post! Adverbs are huge red flags for telling, that’s for sure. :)

    Since you asked, here’s a couple areas where you could make the scene stronger:
    “After taking an assessing glance at the lock”
    How does he assess the lock? Show us his thought process here–he’s an expert, right? If so, then he’d know what kind of lock it was, and which of his tools work best on that particular lock. I.E. “The lock was simple, only a few pins, so the small hooked pick and torque wrench should work.” Or something…you know your story and characters better than I do. :)

    Hope that helps!

    Reply
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