Power Up Your Paragraphs – It’s Fun

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The Exercise

Pick a paragraph from your first draft or even from a book. Circle the

  • nouns,
  • verbs,
  • adjective, and
  • adverbs.

Circle them. Then use your imagination, thesaurus, or Flip Dictionary by Barbara Ann Kipfer. Ph.D. and see if you can replace each circled word with a word that gives a more powerful image. 

Caution: We’re not trying to make the object, action, or description more intense than what is really happening in the paragraph, i.e. we’re not going for melodrama. 

Let’s look at three examples that show a bland, powerful, and melodramatic paragraph. For your first round, try not to rewrite the paragraph, which might be the best solution. For now, we’re trying to think of more powerful, image-producing words. Of course, you’ll find that one word is more powerful than two or a phrase, so go ahead and replace those with the one word.

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The oncoming train’s horn tooted. A couple of children sitting on the train deck picked up their toys, put them in small bags, and hurried after the moving train. An old man worked hard to stand from his chair and followed them. Many other happy people ran around the old man, brushing against him. When the train stopped, people hollered as military men came off the train.


The approaching locomotive’s whistle blasted. Two boys kneeling on the station platform gathered their marbles, stuffed their aggies and shooters into string-tied pokes, and raced toward the chugging train. A time-worn senior struggled to rise from the station bench and trailed the boys. A joyous throng streamed past the octogenarian, jostling against the man. When the engine stopped, the crowd cheered as soldiers spilled from the train. 


The barreling mechanical snake’s siren screamed. Two imps sprawled on the cement slab grabbed their dice, crammed them into metal-studded pockets, and hurdled toward the train. An ancient geezer cracked his back as he removed his haunches from the metal seat and pursued the scallywags. Other ecstatic people galloped past the senile codger, knocking him flat. When the coach stopped, the mob shrieked as combatants stormed off the train. 

Although the melodramatic version uses power words. It fails to retain the spirit of the original, although bland, paragraph. 

What words would you have used for the power version?

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When Should You Spare the Life of an Innocent -ly adverb?

“I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me.” — Mark Twain


Look at the –ly adverbs in the next paragraph. Which would you axe?

Jason planted his hands firmly on top of the gate, swung his legs over gracefully, hit the ground lightly, and took off after Lily. He couldn’t lose her this time. Lily really needed to hear what Dad had said about her before he quietly died. Maybe she’d finally stop running. And return to the family.

All the –ly adverbs could go, except possibly one.

file000987768106.jpgFirmly -Jason hasn’t time to make sure his hands are firmly planted on the gate. And adding firmly slows the fast-paced action down. “Gripped” would sum it up in one strong verb.

Gracefully – this says something about Jason’s agility, but it takes the reader away from the urgency Jason is experiencing. And it slows the action.

Lightly – is this possible? It might be better for Jason to scramble a step to regain his balance. More realistic, and shows the urgency. Scramble is a strong verb that describes Jason’s actions. It means using one’s hands and feet while moving over or up terrain.

Really – I don’t think really adds anything, and takes away the punch from “needed.” If really had been used in dialog, it could work. “Lily, you really need to hear what Dad said.” It still weakens “need,” but it shows how Jason might talk in persuading Lily.

Quietly – this, like the others, is telling and forces the reader to imagine what quietly looks like. No last breath? In his sleep? It speed-bumps the flow. And, how Dad passes is not important here.

Finally – It’s probably unnecessary, but finally supports the idea Lily runs every time she sees family members. Finally is much shorter than going on about her constant fleeing.


  • An –ly adverb works when it gives needed information while moving the story along.
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  • An –ly adverb works when a character would use the word in dialog.
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Here’s the paragraph without the –ly adverbs, but tweaking verbs:

Jason gripped the top of the gate, swung his legs over, scrambled a step on the other side, and took off after Lily. He couldn’t lose her this time. Lily needed to hear what Dad had said about her before he died. Maybe she’d stop running. And return to the family.

books-02.jpgEva Marie Everson uses few –ly adverbs in The Road to Testament. Here are examples where she used them effectively:

  1. He placed the book on the table without fully entering the room, then pulled the door shut.


Without fully we wouldn’t have the right picture of what he’s doing.


  1. On the ground, several dead branches lay haphazardly where thick brambles and brush ran about knee-high. “Careful now,”…

by mparkes
by mparkes

Everson chose succinctness over wordy showing. The description of the branches’ positions isn’t worth more than one word. Haphazardly covers alternatives, such as “lay in a haphazard manner” or “lay this way and that way.”


  • An –ly adverb works when no verb can replace verb+adverb, and showing slows the story.
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What good reasons do you have for using –ly adverbs?