NOTE: In this series of articles we’re looking specifically at how I self-edit, this doesn’t mean you have to use my methods, these articles are examples of the way I work. They may help you, or at least give you some tips, or they may not.
One group of words that get a lot of dislike is adverbs. They’re often, but not always associated with speech tags such as ‘they said loudly’ or ‘they said cheerfully’. There’s nothing automatically wrong with this, adverbs like any other word have their uses the problem tends to be over use because using the same or similar words creates emphasis we might not want. In the case of adverbs it’s the ‘ly’ sound (although not all adverbs are ‘ly’ words, see a separate article here). Sometimes I remove them because I think of a better description, or I realise that what the adverb is describing is shown through the context.
An example of context would be when Charlotte/Lot flirts with Bran do I need to say ‘she said coyly, flirtatiously, or coquettishly’? She might be touching him, such as caressing his face which is intimate, or what she says, such as a double entendre, implies how she says it. Such as:
I grinned, stepped close and rested my hands against his chest. ‘I missed you.’
Would this section be improved with an adverb to describe the dialogue?
I grinned, stepped close and rested my hands against his chest. ‘I missed you,’ I said coyly.
We know Charlotte is speaking because the speech is directly connected to her action so the speech tag to tell us she is speaking is unnecessary. Meanwhile what she does shows us, or at least implies, her intention and how she is speaking. Now this might seem counterproductive because we have an entire sentence instead of three words but without the sentence we would have:
‘I missed you,’ I said coyly.
Now, there’s obviously nothing wrong with this method and we don’t have to have movement description in place of dialogue tags, but remember I’ve got at most 1,500 words to get in character introductions, backstory and everything else a first chapter needs. I may have exchanged a dialogue tag for a sentence but I can cut an entire paragraph or more of telling the reader about Charlotte.
What do I mean by this? Hidden in this short sentence is a detail that can subconsciously inform the reader about Charlotte’s character. She steps towards Bran, he doesn’t step towards her. This is a clue that of the two of them Charlotte is the more dominant and assertive, she doesn’t wait for Bran to make the move, she does it herself. By doing this I haven’t had to step away from the moment to tell the reader that Charlotte is assertive, I just show her behaviour and reveal her assertiveness while building the world and interaction at the same time.
I haven’t cut all the adverbs, there’s still some there because adverbs can be useful and concise. When the Earl speaks quietly does it need more than quietly? I didn’t feel so.
I also used a similar movement based method to describe the scene, although I cut some of this for the sake of my word count and because it was unnecessary. I introduced a little more detail about the type of books in the room by having Charlotte walk along the bookcases to look at them because she’s interested in books. I also showed there were two doors in the room by having the characters interact with them, however I didn’t cut all of the static description because some of it is Charlotte’s first impression of a room she’s never been in before and it’s direct. Once again, both methods can be useful.
Nor have I cut out all the telling, there are moments where Charlotte is considering or explaining something. In the first few paragraphs she explains what the club is describing it as ‘the vestibule of masculinity, women were not allowed.’ (Hysteria) This is telling, perhaps I could’ve shown but this would’ve taken longer and taken me away from the main plot and slowed the story down. As I said in the previous article Charlotte’s goal in this scene is to secure her employment, which means the club not allowing women is a minor thread in this scene.
Going through it now, having finished the book, I can see more places I would adjust in retrospect, such as finding more concise ways to reveal Charlotte’s thought process, particularly where she’s considering her fee. But as writers we’re constantly improving and learning, even if we don’t think so, and there will always be things we look back at and think we could do better.