Thursday, September 26, 2013

Self-Editing #5 - Mining Your Manuscript for Modifiers

Today I’m assuming you've read the previous self-editing tips - especially tip #4. If you aren't sure what modifiers and adverbs are, and how they affect your writing, read that post first. We’ll wait…

All set? Great!

Strap in. Gird your loins. Grit your teeth and [Insert other resolute attitude here] because... we're attacking the REAL modifiers today. That's right, ALL the dreaded 'ly' words.

Here's a small sample from my first manuscript:

"No," he said softly.

The barista smiled politely.

He watched the light innocently blinking on and off.

I had no idea how he'd moved so quickly.**

Etc, etc, etc...

You know them, and [possibly] love them. [Probably] too much. If these puppies have a strangle-hold on your manuscript, you're [really] in trouble. So put your preconceptions aside and go for the ride:

Modifiers pop up in a multitude of environments - and some are [really] necessary. But most [actually] aren't.

The problem is, taking a single sentence out of context and removing the modifier appears to achieve little. Yes, you dropped your wordcount by one... but didn't you just lose a nuance? How are readers supposed to find depth in your work if everything is written [starkly]. Isn't that boring?

Answer: No. Go pick up your favorite [traditionally] published book and read the first five pages. Count how many adverbs appear. My bet is you won't even need the fingers on one hand.

A story is made rich and deep by the skillful weaving of plotlines and character development, not modifiers. Don't get me wrong, your descriptors (which will include adverbs) are critical at times. But what a reader wants is to fall into your world. Their brain wants to forget they're reading and [just] move through the story. The more words required to paint the picture, the harder that is to maintain.

So, here's your assignment today: Take one chapter of your WIP and paste it into a new document. Do a Ctrl + F search on 'ly'. Wherever the word isn't [absolutely, unequivocally] necessary, delete it. Wherever the word is necessary, take another look at the sentence. You have two options:

OPTION 1: Could it be pared down by making the verb / descriptor itself more active? For example:

"How are readers supposed to find depth in your work if everything is written starkly." becomes "How are readers supposed to find depth in your work if the writing is stark?"

If you're willing to put the work in to cutting [all] the fat in your manuscript, your story will thank you. And so will your future agent / editor / reader.

OPTION 2: Can, or should, the adverb be replaced with action? In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain says:

Wherever practical, substitute action for the adverb.

“Angrily, she turned on him”? Or, “Her face stiffened, and her hands clenched to small, white-knuckled fists”?

“Wearily, he sat down”? Or, “With a heavy sigh, he slumped into a chair and let his head loll back, eyes closed”?

Vividness outranks brevity.

At least, sometimes.

(Note: Mr. Swain begins his instruction with an acknowledgement that the examples are at times wordy or over-simplified, but he’s done this purposefully to make the picture clearer).

I’ll be the first to recognize this kind of work is time-consuming, and in some cases will absorb some wordcount. But I’ve yet to see advice from an editor or agent that didn’t suggest polishing a manuscript to the very best of our abilities. And I know from personal experience, these kinds of efforts are rewarding. When your book turns out sharper and more engaging, you’ll be glad you took the time. Promise!

Your Turn: Are there a lot of 'ly' words in your manuscript? Are you having trouble identifying how to rephrase a sentence to streamline it? Jump into the comments here and give us an example or two. Maybe we can help!

**This is the only example where the adverb is necessary.


  1. I love you...and this post. I want to add modifiers to let you know just how much I love you, I'm resisting. ;)

  2. Thank you, Jodi! You just made my day :)

  3. I love you too, she said, slumping back in her chair and chewing her bottom lip in her depression.

  4. Arghhhhhhhhhhh I found 744 of them ... back to work.

  5. Thanks Aimee :) It's turning out not to be as bad as I thought. I think it may be because my book is non-fiction? But I'm still shedding loads of them.

    Thanks very much for the great tips.

  6. All done ... phew.

    I know in a previous 'seek and destroy' you put 'and so;' but I've just done 'so' as well ... the search for it was made easier by putting a space either side of the word. It proved interesting.


    1. Excellent tip! I hadn't thought about using spacing to avoid partial words.

      Depending on what software you're using, you can also go into the options of your find function and tick a box that says "whole words only" which will have the same effect.

      So, how does it feel? :)

  7. Feels much better thanks Aimee. One chapter left to edit ... I have butterflies.