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 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.

    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.

    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!

  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!

  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).

    1. Ha! Good spot.
      You’re right though, I think adverbs can add an extra dimension to writing, especially when used for exaggeration or emphasis as comic effect.

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

  4. I feel like I’ve just been slapped in the face, it’s so obvious now! I’m going try to remember this when I write next. Thank you! x

    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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!!

  8. 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.

    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

  9. 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

  10. 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

  11. 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?

  12. 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,

  13. 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….

  14. 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….. :)

  15. 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

  16. 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. . . .

  17. I try to use strong verbs when I can, but there isn’t always one that conveys exactly what I want to say. I think adverbs can tweak a verb with subtle nuance. You just can’t be heavy-handed with them.

  18. I agree… to a degree but sometimes (like Pelican1) I think an adverb can add a subtle tweak to a sentence. When I teach people on my forum based role playing game site how to play I tell them: Don’t tell me… SHOW me!.

    Sally was upset. That’s fine.. a medical chart of a sentence, a fact but borrrrrrrrrring!

    Sally slapped his face and walked away quickly; her heels ticked against the floor as she threw open the door and stomped out.

    Ooooh much more interesting.. even with the dreaded ly word.

    1. Man, was he pissed. Again she’d caught him unawares. He thought this as he watched her tap off to far away, entranced, as usual, by the swing of her hips.

  19. Life is far to short to sit and contemplate grammar. How long have you sat in front of your computer thinking about what you going to say about adverbs? how many times have you missed your daughter say ‘Momma I love you’ ? How many sunsets and sun rises have you missed while thinking about writing a witty come back? How many of you will look what I have written and criticise my grammar even though you understood what I am trying to say?
    Language will evolve as society changes, the internet, text messaging and tv has seen to that. I did a study in 2001 about children with autism in the UK starting to speak with an American accent because of the American tv shows.

    Think about it………..btw why we are mentioning English, may I just remind software designers its ENGLISH UK, not ENGLISH US, it is why its called English, and being British its my first language and my only language so I will speak it anyway I wish, if you don’t like it get another language…….. I hear that Spanish is a popular language :-)

    1. How about ‘MInglish’? I agree some nations cleverly say things with little new in them. Go figure.

    2. LOL. I used to think like this too, but lately I have realized that proper grammar goes a long way in conveying our message clearer/better. We are writing for the readers, aren’t we? :)

      1. No, I believe we’re writing for ourselves, and I do mean our many selves. I look at a sunrise. If I try to describe it, I somehow destroy it. Better to look at a picture. And turn it upside down to see is it ‘works.’ Keep your mouth shut. Write about the agony of doing this.

      2. I write for myself, just that my pages are open to the public. Do we have to follow the rules of grammar, I have been a professional photographer for many, many years and there are certain rules that you are suppose to follow, when you are in the middle of a riot, or photographing a subject with only seconds to do so, rules dont apply.
        Who laid down these rules? who said that ‘then’ must be changed to ‘than’ in certain situations?
        Regional accents dont care about English, Yorkshire with their thees and thy and t’ instead of the ” t’ lion t’ witch and t’ wordrobe” come to Aberdeen and listen to Doric being spoken its a whole new word, speak to a Gordie fron Newcastle, the Queens English is out the door

    3. Confession: I’m a bit of a grammar nerd. I like to look at my writing to see how I can tighten it, improve it, and try different sentence constructions to see if I can create vivid imagery. I don’t feel as though I’m missing out on anything by choosing to spend my time in this way. It’s how I express my creativity. To each his own.

  20. I have been quite reluctant over the years to drop my adverbs. I’ve spent a lifetime collecting them! However, having just read this post, I think I can see my way clear of avoiding the weaker sentences with adverbs, rather than dropping them altogether, and save them when a sentence requires a very strong verb modifier. Thanks, as usual, for the writing tips!

  21. I remember reading a review Stephen King wrote of the 4th or 5th Harry Potter book – he said that the only giveaway that JK Rowling was a newer author was how she overused adverbs. I’ve never been able to read Harry Potter since then without noticing every single adverb – and now I always notice them in my own writing too!

    1. Wow! what a picture! I think it’s time for what’s his name, THE LAST WORD.
      And say good night, Gracie.
      Goodnight Gracie (said gracie–that’s how old I am).

  22. I have had no idea about the negative effect of overusing adverbs when I read this article. It’s really useful. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll keep in mind for the next writings.

    1. deliciously ambiguous. Now did you mean ‘taking’? A poet gives. Maybe you mean ‘talking.’ I strongly identify. It’s as though some one else were whispering in my ear, guiding my pen. No, no, don’t respond. I want to wonder a while.

  23. When I trip over an adverb, it is never accidental, it seems. Long ago, something I read by Hemingway said to eliminate all unnecessary words. You find that adverbs are, most often, unnecessary, and that there’s a cleaner, quicker way to say something. Hemingway talked about ‘elegant’ prose, and you do not create elegant prose through a preponderance of adverbs. However, when I speak, I throw in adverbs willy-nilly. I suspect they’re overused because they provide emphasis and an ‘easy’ sense of ‘drama.’

  24. Excellent post! I’ve listened to this advice from many other and better authors than I, and I employ it whenever I am paying attention and not in a hurry. If I have the luxury of having time to edit and revise, I puck those pesky adverbs out, as per the Honorable Mr. King’s advice. I would liken them to baobab trees on Asteroid B-612, but no one would know what I was talking about.

    1. The baobab (which I’ve twice misspelled) tree–Was that an Ogden Nash, maybe a Kipling, or, gee, could it be what’s his name, sci-fi dude, wrote about dandelion tea……genius, his writing should be read aloud………….senior moments, moments senior….it will come to me after I’ve posted…………….

  25. Thank you. It’s never occurred to me that adverbs were the lazy way to go. I’ll consider my word choices more thoughtfully now.

  26. I love this. It is so important to use other words to get a reader to become a part of the adventures sink into the story instead of watching through a frosted glass window.

  27. Reblogged this on One Great Public Radio Intern and commented:
    They pulled me in with a video of my FAVORITE School House Rock episode, “Lolly Lolly Adverbs;” they kept me with the fabulous quote from Stephen King’s “On Writing.”

    As communicators, we need to be keen on use of language and not be lazy “adverb offenders.”

    Now I’m going to go feed my need for School House Rock episodes on YouTube. Beyond Lolly Lolly Adverbs, I freaking LOVED the Superhero Verbman. That music is beyond awesome!!!

    Which episode is your favorite? I’d love to hear from you.


  28. Too many adverbs are maybe lazy, but why avoid them altogether? Variety is the spice of life. I agree wholeheartedly with Mysoresoul (and yes, I totally assume that blatantly used adverb): language evolves all the time, and some “rules” are made to be broken eventually. Writing’s a bit like cookery: each chef throws in his own favourite ingredients and comes up with tastily different dishes.

  29. Thoroughly, entirely, completely, fully, totally disagree at first.
    Timidly, wonderingly, questioningly turn to The Almighty Google.

    Surprisedly, happily, unexpectedly find Mark Twain:
    “I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. … There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,–the confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,–and this adverb plague is one of them. … Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won’t.”

    Laughingly saw that even Master Twain used “absolutely nothing”, maybe not realizing that absolutely is an adverb.

  30. Reblogged this on Nora's Empty Nest and commented:
    I’m reblogging this, because I agree that using stronger verbs in place of adverbs is a great way to write tighter and more powerful scenes. This blog says it well. Still, I am quite sure I have over-used adverbs sometimes, as have most of us. I’ll be more alert to it now. (I also just love Schoolhouse Rock videos!!)