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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…

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.)

  1. An adverb is an ad that gets placed on your WordPress.com site as part of the Google Adverbs program.
  2. Adverb is when the sound from an amplified musical instrument sort of bounces around the room.
  3. 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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  1. Yay! I love to see this discussed here. In critique session, adverbs are a continual topic. Whenever I come across an adverb in my own writing or someone else’s, someone always asks, can a stronger verb be used here? A more descriptive one, with sound or speed or a visual cue? In your example above, when you write “plodded” I see snow and perhaps a grimace on the man’s face, when you write “ambled” I get a sense of carefree wandering, when you write “trudged” I see a sloppy overcoat, and the man is looking at the ground. With “walks slowly” I don’t get any of that.

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    1. Agreed! Strong verbs can convey so much more emotion which helps readers connect. I loved reading how you imagined each sentence — it brings home how effective strong verbs can be in creating that picture in the reader’s mind.

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    2. In general, SoundEagle agrees with both andreabadgley and Krista about the centrality of the verb and the ancillary role of the adverb. However, adverbs can be used very effectively and imaginatively in good hands and within some contexts, at least to the extent that certain combination of verb and adverb cannot be substituted, expressed, encapsulated and/or accommodated by a single verb.

      Happy October to all of you!

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  2. Interesting, I actually like your description of why not to use adverbs (because a stronger verb is more evocative) better than Stephen’s (prior prose should get the job done before you even get to the verb), although both are worth thinking about. Thanks for the food for thought!

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  3. Hmm. Yes… but. Look carefully and you’ll notice that Mr King uses the adverb ‘clearly’ in the first paragraph of his explanation of why adverbs are bad!
    Like everything, it’s a matter of balance. Too many adverbs is often a sign of lazy writing. But as with the passive voice, sometimes they’re what’s right for that situation.
    Adverbs serve a function. That’s why we have them. Just don’t use them in every sentence (or paragraph).

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    1. Balance is critical! That’s one reason why I suggest reconsidering them — not necessarily banning them. A time and place for everything, eh?

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    1. So right, Katharine! As a writer, an editor, and an English teacher, I am so fed up with this “politically correct” he/she jargon that I want to spit! I absolutely refuse to let any of my writing students use it.

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  4. It’s true! Having mentored children in high school, however, many don’t have the vocabulary to not use adverbs, even though they can’t tell you what an adverb is.

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  5. I am probably guilty of overusing adverbs, I must admit. I like King’s argument for context and prior explaination, but the argument for using a stronger very seems much more solid to me. I’ll have to try to remember that when I next edit my story. Thanks for the food for thought.

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  6. As an offender of this principle, I really must take this lesson to heart and try to grow as a writer. I loved this post. I will try, in my next few pieces, to modify closely the use of my adverbs. So I hammer home a better imagery which should lead to a more fully realized story. Great post today!!

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  7. Interesting post. Adverbs are like most grammatical tools in writing, there are times when they are needed and times when they are dead weight. In many cases with adverbs a more active verb could work better than an adverb. I think, if you’re going to use them you need to tailor them so that they both get the necessary emotion across and work with the flow of the sentence.

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    1. Dead weight. Kafka would agree. Just the ‘facts.’ Ain’t no such thing as ‘factually.’ I mean, Gregors Sampsa woke up one morning to discover he’d been ‘transformed’ into his alter ego. What a relief (noun). He felt ‘relieved’? Bull. God, we’ve discussed adverbs into infinity. Couldn’t we talk about more important things, like do the quotation marks encompass the punctuation marks? Yeah, KIng’s a genius. Have your kids first read ‘The Body’, and then show them Stand by Me, pointing out what happened to Phoenix. Yep, King’s right up there with Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein (a rose is a rose is a rose…………0

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  8. I read somewhere that there is no point in using adjectives, either. Adjectives like beautiful, wonderful, extra-ordinary, etc., it seems, are empty words that seek to artificially thrust emotions on readers. Real emotions should flow from the description, dialogues and context (it seems). That is hard, I admit :)

    No adjectives, no adverbs, hmmm… what is left, then? :P

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  9. I’m grinning from ear to ear. I’ve learned a bunch in this short post! Super helpful information. Now you’ve got me adverb-watching everything I write. lol. Thanks for this post. =D

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  10. I wasn’t sure if I did this or not, so I jumped over to my blog to check … lol … and thankfully I don’t seem to overuse adverbs in my poems, although I think in poetry this doesn’t exactly apply. Because in poetry there is rhyme and meter and sometimes you need adverbs to balance things out …

    My other observation is that adverbs sometimes modify an adjective, which is not as lazy as using them to modify verbs. Such as “I grip the metal, it is comfortably cold” actually adds more than takes away. Thoughts?

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  11. Not a big Stephen King fan but i’m not going to argue…the man knows what he’s talking about. It’s useful to take on board the odd grammar lesson from time to time, and i like the concept of a stronger verb. You only have to run through a few examples in your mind to see that this is sound advice,
    Thanks

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  12. Moderation is the key. The key to good writing is moderation. You must not over-indulge in any one form of expression. Please moderate your use of the parts of speech.

    Except, of course, there is one thing I learned from many years as a consultant.

    “It depends”.

    Now cross my palm with silver and I’ll tell you what you already knew but were looking for validation and are willing to pay for it.

    But hang on! I’m a blogger! I need validation….

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  13. Great post and certainly an eye-opener! Things like this make so much sense as soon as you read them and yet often don’t even enter the consciousness when writing. Guess who is going to go back over her work to look for superfluous adverbs….. :)

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  14. I know that the liberal sprinkling of adverbs is as bad as adjectives in purple prose but I’m not altogether keen on the modern trend for terse prose, stripped of their decorative effects. Thanks for the thought-provocation

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  15. Reblogged this on medialawblogger and commented:
    I just came across this post and thought that my readers might be interested in some tips on good writing. I’m going to take a look at my posts and see whether I’m guilty of over use of adverbs. . . .

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