“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Stephen King.
I can’t agree more. I fear I’ll step on some toes here, because there are hundreds of authors who love adverbs and will argue ‘til the cows come home that they improve their writing. I can’t go there. Oh, I know they’re in my own novels and columns, they pop up without notice in the first drafts, but I do my best to weed them out and rewrite the sentences to make them better than the original.
A few years ago, I packed a couple of books in a carry-on, intending to spend the almost nine hour flight to Hawaii with my nose in a book. I’ve written novels and newspaper columns on planes, and have edited several manuscripts while hanging in the air over various parts of this great nation, but I prefer to read.
I’d purchased a much-touted post-apocalyptic novel from Amazon and had been looking forward to losing myself in the tale (I got hooked on those when I read Alas Babylon fifty years ago). The flight leveled off, I ordered a Bombay Sapphire and tonic, (they had my gin in stock, huzzah!) and settled back with The Novel That Shall Not Be Named (not the real title). The problem began in paragraph one and I knew the book was going to be a wall-banger when I read:
He headed for the baggage claim tiredly, hoping this would be the last time for a while.
Good lord. That sentence required two deep swallows of Bombay before I could continue, and I did, hoping the writing would get better.
Maybe that one slipped through the editing process.
Here we go again. Still on the first page, I read the word “battered” twice in two short, consecutive paragraphs and sighed.
Please get better.
In the next couple of paragraphs, our protagonist leaves the airport, lights a cigarette, and outside for his delayed ride. Unlike him, we didn’t have to wait long for more adverbs.
“Hey pal, can’t you read?” someone said sharply.
“Does your daddy know you’re out playing cop?” he said snidely.
There were two more books in my carry-on, because I never go anywhere without backup, but reading that book was like watching a train wreck. I couldn’t stop, and my fascination with bad writing and boring sentences kept me from throwing the hefty novel against the bulkhead.
There were other problems as well, though I won’t dwell on them other than to say the author fell back on using character’s name in conversation over and over in order to identify the speaker, something I discussed in my last post.
His protagonist and other characters also snapped, spat, snarled, growled, grunted, barked, remarked (unnecessary), shouted, screamed (he just loved for verbs to follow dialogue), but I couldn’t get past the adverbs scattered like rice at a wedding.
Unceremoniously, firmly, loudly, tiredly (again), actually, expertly, apologetically, evenly, and finally (four times), all in the first short chapter.
And it was the way he used them. For example, he insisted on using adverbs that were redundant to the verb they modified.
“Amy whispered quietly to her mother.”
Uh, whispering is already quiet, so we don’t need it. That’s like…
He screamed loudly. Or, Amy drove quickly to the store.” This adverb is modifying a weak verb, so maybe Amy can “jump in her car and race to the store.”
Then there’s the adverb “very,” which I propose is the gateway word leading to Hell Road. Some writers use it the same as so many people who insist that the whole world and everything in it is amazing.
Amy was very tired.
Nope. Amy was exhausted, wrung out, beat, worn out, bushed, dog-tired or even wiped out, but for cryin’ out loud, lift your vocabulary! Her dogs were barking, she was dead on her feet!!! Jeeze!
I believe Mr. King also said adverbs prefer the passive voice, and seem to have been created with the timid word in mind. He was dead-on with The Novel That Shall Not Be Named. I closed it at the beginning of the second chapter. With no suitable walls to throw it against, and fearing aggressive responses from the other passengers if I heaved it into the aisle, I stuck the offending work in the seat pocket in front of me.
It’s something I regret today, because I figure some unsuspecting soul picked it up and found themselves subjected to poor writing. I regret leaving it on that plane for another reason, because I often use it these days as a teaching tool (I found another copy in a bookstore, which means I bought the damned thing twice). The Novel That Shall Not Be Named is a good, bad example of how adverbs allow the writer to be lazy, instead of allowing the work to support itself with well-constructed, thoughtful sentences.
Let’s go back to the first example from The Novel That Shall Not Be Named. I’ll refresh your memory:
He headed for the baggage claim tiredly, hoping this would be the last time for a while.
Exhausted from the long flight from Dusseldorf, he joined the herd of passengers making their lemming-like way to the baggage claim, hoping he wouldn’t have to travel overseas again for a while.
Now, I know we can argue the point to excess, but to me, it reads better with some context and gives the sentence a little more gas. Here are a few more examples.
I had her wrist firmly in hand.
I squeezed her wrist.
She closed the door firmly.
She slammed the door.
The horse loped around the arena speedily.
Comfortable in the saddle, Matt loped around the arena.
He stuttered haltingly.
How about a simple, “He stuttered.”
Read your manuscript carefully.
Read your manuscript with a critical eye toward those annoying adverbs.
Again, they tend to prop up weak or listless sentences, and that’s when I can’t stand those little buggers. When you find them, re-write the sentence and it will almost always be better than the original.
This example from Daily Writing Tips is a perfect example of these useless weeds (King’s description).
“Adverbs, like adjectives, have gotten a bad rap for their cluttering qualities. They are ever so useful, and so applicable and adaptable that writers often employ them mindlessly and indiscriminately. But which of the three adverbs in the preceding phrase (not only mindlessly and indiscriminately but also often) must I mercilessly vaporize with the Delete key?”
How about “…writers employ them without conscious thought,” or maybe, “…writers employ them with unconsidered, gleeful abandon,” or “…writers should find a better way to construct their sentences.”
I don’t think budding authors even know they’re being lazy, or maybe they don’t recognize adverbs for what they are. After reading On Writing by Mr. King, I went back and combed through my first manuscript, excising as many adverbs as I could find, and the truth be told, my writing sparkled when I deleted most of them.
Just this past Sunday, a friend asked if he could pick my brain a little about becoming an author. I have an idea for a non-fiction book.”
“I’ve written a lot of how-to magazine articles, but fiction is completely different and that’s where I’m comfortable.” I suggested some conferences or writing classes he could take to get started, but he had other ideas.
“I just want to talk about language and style.” He glanced around, as if worried that someone was listening in.
I couldn’t resist having a little fun with him. “I can give you a quick lesson now.”
“Write conversationally and avoid adverbs.”
Nodding, he wrote the sentence down on a scrap piece of paper.
It was just too easy, because he was concentrating on the subject at hand, much like writing the first draft of a manuscript, and those adverbs weren’t yet resonating. “Remember, no adverbs if you can help it. Seriously. That’s the best advice I can offer right now.”
“Absolutely. Thanks for your help.”
I really, really like your post, Rev. Superbly done. I will remember it fondly.
Occasionally, I will use an adverb, tentatively, but never for a dialogue description—that is truly and stunningly off-putting, as in, “I need a pencil sharpener,” said Tom bluntly.
Hahahaha. Your comment made me laugh heartily. 😉
Tom Swifties aside, there are plenty-plenty ways to say ‘said’ and omit any adverbial foofaraw: ‘Uttered’ and all its cousins, ‘snarled,’ “ululated,’* etc. A better verb eliminates the need for an adverb, but anyway, there’s little need for ornate ways to say ‘said’: ‘Said’ is transparent to readers and much less conspicuous than ‘hissed,’ etc. BTW, never say anything like, “Get your fat butt off my lawn!” he hissed.
* my favorite
Spot on. Never use an adverb in ANY dialogue tag or when it echoes the meaning of the verb it’s modifying (yelled loudly, cautiously peeked, etc.). That said, adverbs, like adjectives, articles, nouns, and verbs, have their place. On the other hand, in bad writing the road to Hell is paved with, well, words. (grin)
Yes, adverbs are useful. The rule is not “Avoidest thou adverbs religiously,” but “Use action verbs unless there ain’t one; then just use the bloody adverb. NEVER dance around an adverb: “He chose his surgical implement in a careful manner.” In a careful manner is . . ? yes, right, it’s an ADVERBIAL, a far greater sin than an occasional adverb.
Challenge: Utilize the rare adverb “barfly” in an English sentence in a correct manner.
I’ve been dealing with edits for my next release. SmartEdit (which I’ve talked about before as a helpful writing tool) does a search for adverbs, which helps me see the ones that sneak by. While I’ve never written a book with no adverbs, I like to think the ones I keep are helping the story. And as you and JSB pointed out, NEVER in dialogue tags.
“That’s the last time I pet a lion,” Tom said offhandedly.
‘Morning, Rev. I have two copies of On Writing. One is a (very, very) worn-out paperback carved with red underlines and yellow highlights. The other is a (really and truly) pristine, first-edition hardcover. It’s encased in a (lovely) shadowbox on my writing room wall. Man, (how) I wish they were (personally) signed by Mr. King.
Great post, Rev. Good points and reminders. When I have the itch to sprinkle some adverbs, I like to start a wordy verbose character talking incessantly without stopping.
Have a great holiday break, Christmas and New Year. See you in January.
Thanks for a great, entertainingly written lesson, Rev. (Sorry, had to do it…and besides, everyone else has their tongues in their cheeks this morning…)
I still remember my first submission to my newly-hired editor-the first few chapters of my WIP. I was so excited to send it off to her and spent a few weeks biting my nails, waiting for her to send it back. I was sure she’d love it, say what a genius I am, and ask for more. NOT
Her red pen had gone to work, slicing and dicing those adverbs, dialogue tags, and character names out of existence. It was like I was back in 8th grade English, looking at an essay I’d labored over.
Not the genius I thought I was. My editor is the genius . . . and I’m still learning. 🙂
The standard line about traditionally published books being properly edited, unlike self-pub and small press books, always makes me laugh because some of the worst books I’ve read in recent years have a big name NYC publisher and a major bestseller author. And adverbs aren’t the worst of their offenses. If I were one of those hallowed bestsellers, I’d pay for my own copy editor before I put my name on that book so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.
But in defense of adverbs and other writing excesses, we write novels, not newspaper articles or the driest of dry nonfiction. Don’t suck the life out of your writing trying to achieve that dry style. Plus, we tend to write in viewpoint, and our viewpoint character is rarely an English professor. A few adverbs and colorful bits of language won’t hurt, here and there.
I saw a double negative on Pg2 of a Booker Prize winner. Not a good double negative, but one that clearly said the opposite of the author’s intent. Much later, I realized to my horror, an editor had probably inserted the superfluous not!
And, yes, style can oft trump grammar and other fussbudgetry.
Just to be contrary, I was trying to come up with an adverb that works. Only one classic comes to mind:
“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Captain Kirk never just went. He always went boldly.
Q. Do you know why Capt. Picard has no hair?
A. It was due to a misunderstanding. Patrick Stewart thought he was supposed to baldly go where no man has gone before.
I too, am adverb-adverse. Maybe in an action scene, it’s all you can do, but for the most part, it’s lazy writing. Why? Because with two seconds thought, you can come up with something better, as you did above. I’m not saying I never use them, but only when I really, really need to.
To be on the contrarian, I believe most readers don’t even notice adverbs. If the story engages them, they overlook such details that we writers obsess about.
That’s not to say it’s okay to be a lazy writer. I certainly strive to do better than that. But I think sometimes craft issues are of far more concern to writers than to readers.
But I’ve discarded many books b/c of poor writing. I always rejoice when I find a skillful writer who can also tell a good story.
You’re right. And I fear this next will be the last generation that can recognize good writing. The schools are dumbing down the curriculum faster and faster. Past participle modifiers are practically dead. Constructions such as, “The recipe called for boil milk,” have become typical.
Great post, Rev. “You nailed it,” she said pointedly.
Great post! But I listen with a grain of salt when King says: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
Oh, yeah? Then how come his “The Running Man” (1982), which I just re-read, is FILLED with non-essential _ly adverbs? Huh? 😉
That was a Richard Bachman book. Maybe that’s why King killed him off!
AND it was the old days…
Not that King needs me sticking up for him.
I just added a link to this great post on the Grammar Check page of the First Draft website!
Cheers and Happy Writing!