Flash Fiction Contest Tips: Eliminating Adverbs

Friday, February 12, 2021

Hello WOW Readers! I have been one of the first-tier contest judges for WOW’s quarterly flash fiction contest for over a decade, and it has been a huge pleasure to read your stories. I am writing this blog series on Flash Fiction Contest Tips to help you strengthen your flash writing and maybe even place in one of our contests! Tips are based on our scoring criteria and craft trends I’ve seen throughout the decade. 

TECHNICAL is one of the scoring categories for the flash fiction contest, and one criterion within that category is overuse of adverbs. Adverbs are words that modify or describe verbs, adjectives, clauses, or other adverbs. 

If a story contains too many unnecessary adverbs – and many of them are unnecessary, especially in a creative work – it hurts your story’s rating and could make or break your story’s chance of getting passed to the contest’s guest judge. The good news is that adverbs are an easy item to edit out of your story! 

Consider the following sentence: 

She bravely stood and unflinchingly grabbed the sword from the stone, which was precariously placed on top of a cliff where a storm was quickly brewing. 

Sure, this sentence has a lot of tension, but it is a mouthful with all of the adverbs. The adverbs not only make it wordy, but they do more to tell than show the scene. The bottom line is that they weaken the writing. Adverbs often – but not always – end in -ly, which can make most of them easy to spot. Some common adverbs that don’t end in -ly are quite, well, and very. 

Let’s revisit the sentence above. How many adverbs can you spot? 

She bravely stood and unflinchingly grabbed the sword from the stone, which was precariously placed on top of a cliff where a storm was quickly brewing. 

There are five in this short sentence. So, what can you do about it? The easiest, and often the best, option is to just eliminate the unnecessary ones. Poof! They’re gone: 

She stood and grabbed the sword from the stone, which was placed on top of a cliff where a storm was brewing. 

Hooray! We just eliminated four unneeded words. (Unless we choose to further edit this sentence, “where” is necessary here.) In flash fiction, as you know, word count is limited, so you want to make every word count. There are additional ways to reduce the wordiness in this sentence, but that may be a tip for another day! 

Tips brought to you by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. She is a writer for WOW! Women on Writing, Trail Sisters, and StoryTerrace. She has a master's degree in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and a doctorate in Adult Education from Penn State University. She is also a competitive swimmer, a trail adventurer, a dog lover, and a new mom. Tweets @dr_greenawalt.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Anne--It's great to hear about your perspective as a judge. Thankfully, oodles of adverbs are not my problem when it comes to contest submissions. It's something else that I haven't quite put my finger on.

I think I recall learning that if vivid verbs are used, a writer doesn't have to rely heavily on adverbs.

Thanks for the post, and have fun being a mom. The joys are indescribable.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great example, Anne! I'm excited for more in your series. :)

As you mentioned, there are ways to tighten this sentence, and we could eliminate the passive verbs "was placed" and "was brewing" and ask what's the important element of that sentence--the storm or the sword? That's what we should try and end on. There are so many possible combinations! Here's one: She stood on top of the cliff, a storm brewing overhead, and grabbed the sword from the stone.

And Sioux, yes! By using vivid verbs you can eliminate ly adverbs and craft strong sentences. I read somewhere that action verbs stimulate the brain.

Anne Greenawalt said...

Thanks, Sioux and Ang! Using strong verbs to replace too many adverbs (and too many adjectives) is a great way to strengthen your writing; and eliminating passive voice will likely be technical lesson #2 :-)

Renee Roberson said...

I know I'm guilty of this in my own writing. Thank you for pointing out how simple eliminating adverbs can be and why it's so helpful!

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