On Writing: Dealing with Adverbs

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

~Stephen King

Quite recently in the world of writing, adverbs have been shunned, probably because of what Stephen King wrote in his iconic book On Writing, which provides writers with a great deal of advice on how to improve writing with his unique writing style and perspective. This really isn’t anything new. Ever since the very fist edition of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style was published in 1959, writing teachers have tried to impress on students of writing the concept of “less is more.” That King specifically cites adverbs has everyone jumping the bandwagon and cutting out any word ending in –ly from their works. I’d say that’s really a rash reaction, because adverbs are beautiful words that help the reader create an image in their mind. What writers need to remember is that there are different kinds of adverbs, and some are worse than others, insofar as leading a writer down the road to hell. The use of adverbs is closely linked with the need for writers to “show, not tell,” a skill that is more difficult to master than many writers think. Because adverbs, especially adverbs of manner, tell us how verbs act. For example, we say “He ran quickly” using the adverb “quickly” to describe how he ran. In this example, I’d say the use of the adverb ‘quickly’ is lazy, just because there are so many ways to describe running. The preferred and more effective option is to use the exact word, and in this case, ‘ran’ is not exact enough. To show how a person runs quickly, we can more effectively use the words raced, rushed, dashed, hurried—you get the idea. Choosing the more exact word is using more picturesque language with less words. Alternately, you can say “His legs pumped up and down as he pounded the ground with his feet, his face drenched with sweat pouring from his brow with the effort, touching all he passed with a rush of warm air.”

On the other hand, there are adverbs that have no better way of being said, such as adverbs of time and place. There’s no better way to say “today” than with the word ‘today’; there’s no easier way to say ‘up’ or ‘down’ than by using the adverbs exactly as they are. When using linking adverbs, you need to make sure they are necessary. Linking adverbs help describe sequence (then), cause and effect (consequently), and contrast (however) and give us better transition between ideas, phrases, and sentences. Be careful not to overuse linking adverbs, though. I advise against the use of evaluative adverbs in writing fiction because it introduces too much of the author’s opinion into the text; use evaluative adverbs only when they reflect a specific character’s thoughts. Authors need to be very careful not to be actively present in their stories, and leave the stories to the characters and their narrator. Even if you use the omniscient narrator, who sees and knows everything, you must be careful to maintain your narrator’s persona. If you want to write your personal opinions, then write creative nonfiction. Unless you want to sound like today’s younger speakers, be careful how you use degree adverbs—adverbs that show to what extent or degree something happens. Modern language has seen the introduction of some words to replace the word ‘much’ so instead of saying ‘much more’ or ‘much less’ we hear people saying ‘way more’ or ‘way less’ and so on. Unless your character has a terribly limited vocabulary, I’d limit the use of this colloquialism. Focusing adverbs can also be dispensed with most of the time because they tell the reader what to think, rather than show them things, and are generally a matter of opinion (in the same way I used the word ‘generally’ in this sentence).

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t use adverbs at all. Adverbs can be very effective when used judiciously. Sometimes, there isn’t enough time to ‘show’ the reader everything in full picturesque detail because sometimes the details are not that important. In that case, you can either use the adverb or eliminate the details, because they probably aren’t significant enough to include.

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