The Adverb Myth

Ok, first, let’s start with a quote that pretty much any modern writer has run across…

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Excellent advice, until it isn’t.

Adverbs should be controlled, true enough. Adverbs should be avoided at all costs? Utter b.s.

Some people seem to think his advice is to never use an adverb, but there’s no way. The paladin of the anti-adverb movement himself uses them. I ran a quick Google search through a couple of King’s books for the first adverb (and one of the most useless, IMHO) I could think of – quickly. And here’s what I found in the book where he makes that statement…

King, On Writing

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 10.19.12 AM

Then I went to one of his short story collections, which are my favorite of his writings. He tends to ramble in his novels, but when he has to rein himself in for shorter works, he’s brilliant. There are fourteen results for “quickly” in this example of his uber-condensed writing.

King, Night Shift

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 10.20.38 AM.png

Then, I realized that we all change styles over time, honing our craft as we go. A search of the recently published Different Seasons turned up the same thing.

King, Different Seasons

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So, here is the quandary… he’s right, and he’s wrong. What should you do about it?

Adverbs are not the devil, but excessive adverb use shows lazy writing and every adverb you use should be scrutinized. As they showed in Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (which I HIGHLY recommend ever writer read), the fewer adverbs an author’s book has, the better it performs in the market. That’s not because readers sit around with a clicker, counting off adverbs. It’s because the writer payed more attention to their words.

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve

But, don’t go through and delete adverbs willy-nilly. Things like ‘quickly ran’ should not be cut down to ‘ran.’ They don’t mean the same thing and ‘ran’ can be boring. Instead, use a more powerful verb – i.e. sprinted, bolted, etc.

On that note, ‘sprinted quickly’ and ‘bolted quickly’ are times you should out-right kill the adverb. The words already mean that, so adverbs are superfluously unnecessary.  (See what I did there? That reminds me – I need to get back to that post about ‘purple prose’ I was working on yesterday.)

English is a robust language with words for differing degrees of a lot of verbs. If there is a powerful verb that gets your point across, use that and not an adverb with a boring verb.

However, English is not all-encompassing (it’s not German, after all). There are times when there isn’t a verb that means what you want to say. When that happens, by all means, modify a verb. Just make sure you are doing it with confidence and not because you are too lazy to care.

Pluck adverbs and other indulgences from your writing with care and contemplation – leaving the ones necessary to convey your images and getting rid of the ones that a stronger verb would take care of.

Unlike some of the wisdom I’ve heard imparted recently, adverbs are not weeds in your writing. They aren’t some sort of infestation that can only be culled with fire and deforestation. They are flowers that should be used sparingly to add color.

Use them when they’re needed, but pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.



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