Craft of Writing: Down with Adverbs?
For most people the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Author Stephen King says that, for writers, the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Let’s do a quick refresher on what an adverb is, learn why adverbs get such a bad rap, and why you might choose to think very carefully before you use adverbs in your writing. (See what I did there?)
A brief refresher
Before we talk about why we might want to kick adverbs to the curb, let’s take a detour to grammar school for a quick refresher test on the definition of an adverb and how we use them in sentences.
From among the options, choose the best definition for an adverb. (No talking. Eyes on your own paper.)
- An adverb is an ad that gets placed on your WordPress.com site as part of the Google Adverbs program.
- Adverb is when the sound from an amplified musical instrument sort of bounces around the room.
- An adverb modifies a verb. Sometimes and adverb modifies an adjective or sometimes even another adverb. Example: He walked slowly. (Here, slowly is the adverb, modifying the verb walked.)
If you’re still a little fuzzy on the precise use of adverbs in sentences, check out this short video from the old Schoolhouse Rock series: Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here.
The adverb: writing friend or foe?
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and sometimes even other adverbs. They’ll often tell us “how” something was done, e.g., He walked slowly. Or, He walked very sowly. But, do adverbs clarify, or are they crutches for lazy or rushed writers who rely on adverbs to do their verbs’ heavy lifting? What if, instead of using adverbs to tell us how the man walked, we swapped in a stronger verb to show us how he walked?
Consider these alternatives:
- The man plodded.
- The man ambled.
- The man trudged.
In each instance above, our new verb not only better describes how the man moved, it creates a picture in the reader’s mind. Stronger verbs can also convey emotion more effectively, which makes for stronger, vivid writing.
Still not convinced? Here’s what Stephen King has to say on adverbs:
The adverb is not your friend.
Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?
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- Weekly Writing Challenge: 1,000 Words
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