One of the more common indicators of lazy writing, which many are not aware of, is an over-reliance on adverbs – saying someone ran quickly, someone sang sadly, somebody waited eagerly.
The conflicting approach here is that, in non-fiction, the use of adverbs like this makes sense, as it’s unemotional, it’s a form that’s designed to provide straight-forward information, as fast as you can. So it makes sense to say ‘he listening intently‘ as it’s a quicker way to provide the basic overview you’re seeking.
But in fiction, that’s not enough.
In fiction writing, you’re looking for the best ways to convey the emotion of a scene, to condense the feelings of each character within each moment, and distill that down in order to recreate that same sensation within your reader. That’s both the challenge and triumph of great writing, and it is absolutely not easy to do. But in this, over-reliance on adverbs is an absolute killer.
Next time you come across an adverb in your work, consider whether the same could be said differently, giving you a chance to add a more inventive, engaging flair to the sentences, and helping to build each scene.
Instead of saying ‘he ran quickly’, you might try: ‘he ran like an animal freed from a cage, faster than you would expect.’
Instead of ‘someone sang sadly’, you could say: ‘someone sang, and it sounded as if her heart had separated in two, right in there in the moment.’
There won’t always be an ideal replacement, but as you can see, by taking the time to consider the actual scene, and the actual movement or happening within it, you can likely come up with a more active, alive description, which enhances the feeling you’re trying to express.
And if you find that works, try also replacing specific details, like measurements, kilometres, years-old, etc.
Here’s an example from a piece by Amy Hempel:
“The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.”
You don’t need to be so specific, so clinical and flat in your explanations – and in re-considering your descriptions, you may actually come up with more descriptive, enhancing prose.