Attack of the Adverb-Sucking Robot

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

– Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read the advice to avoid adverbs when writing. With the way adverbs are vilified, you’d think that inscribing one inevitably causes a writer’s fictional world to collapse.

I read an article last weekend that discussed Stephen King’s take on adverbs and the themes that are raised. It said that writers use adverbs out of fear — fear that their writing will be poor if they don’t use descriptive words.

I think writers are more afraid of being attacked with admonishments about adverbs. They either fear that they have adverbs that weaken their writing, or they fear that removing adverbs in some kind of robotic way will make their writing sound flat.

But you don’t need to be afraid of adverbs — you just need to know when to remove them and why.

Here are three reasons why you might want to remove an adverb:

  1. The adverb is redundant. Having two words that mean the same thing weakens the sentence rather than strengthening it.
  2. The adverb is a useless intensifier like “very” or “really.” These intensifiers are overused and have become meaningless.
  3. The adverb is telling the reader something that should be shown instead. (This relates to another common piece of writing wisdom: “Show, don’t tell.”) The adverb is compensating for something that is missing from the scene. Instead of using an adverb to convey something, it would be better to add in some details that remove the need for an adverb.

To illustrate all this advice, I have written a short story. It’s not all that scary, I promise.

Imagine if someone invented an amazing yet intimidating new writing tool: an adverb-sucking robot.

Attack of the Adverb-Sucking Robot

Adele was at her desk, writing. She saw a shadow creep over her desk and looked up. Not again, she thought.

Adverb Sucking Robot

“Why won’t you just leave me alone? I can’t concentrate with you hovering over me!”

Beep beep beep.

“Okay, so I wrote a few adverbs…big deal! What do you know, anyway?”

BEEEEEEP.

“Fine. I’ll show you adverbs!” Adele scribbled a sentence.

The robot stood menacingly over me.

The dreaded roaring noise began. Adele slammed her hands on the paper as the air was sucked away from her desk. But she knew it was useless. The words now read:

The robot stood over me.

“Now look what you’ve done! This is boring. Where’s that sense of dread I get every time you invade my life? I need to tell them exactly how I feel about you, you tin monstrosity.”

Boop. A brief rush of air ruffled the page.

The robot towered over me.

“Hmmm…okay, I admit that towered is a strong verb. But that’s not saying enough about how I feel. I need to add something…” Adele concentrated, then wrote another sentence.

I was really afraid that the robot would destroy my writing.

“There! Argue with that, you interfering hack. I dare you.”

ROARRR…

I was afraid that the robot would destroy my writing.

“But I’m not afraid! I’m really afraid. I’m…I’m…”

Boop.

I was terrified that the robot would destroy my writing.

“Yes, terrified – that’s it. Because how can you possibly have any good judgment on this? You’re a robot, not a writer…you don’t feel things the way people do. Speaking of which…” Adele wrote another sentence with a flourish. “Witness the truth of your existence.”

The robot unfeelingly sucked away all her adverbs.

Roarrr…

The robot sucked away all her adverbs.

Adele stared at her paper and waited. But nothing happened.

“What, no boop this time?”

Silence.

“Oh, I get it. A robot is obviously unfeeling because it’s a robot, so I don’t need to tell anyone that. It would be redundant.”

Wheeee.

“Why are you making that noise? I must admit that’s an improvement. But I’m confused. Hang on…”

She shook her head confusedly.

“No, wait, don’t say anything —”

Adele scribbled.

She shook her head confusedly.

“We already know I’m confused, right? Because your behaviour is so different from before. So I don’t need an adverb to tell anyone that!”

WHEEEEE.

Adele thought maybe she could get used to that new sound. She looked over her page and realized that her writing did look better.

She smiled happily.

***

Thanks to my wonderful son, who gave me both the idea and the stellar drawing.

What do you think about using adverbs? Do you have words that you watch for, and how do you deal with them? (I sometimes use the Hemingway app to find adverbs in my own writing.)

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

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48 thoughts on “Attack of the Adverb-Sucking Robot

  1. One only need read fiction by best-selling authors to know adverbs are still alive and well. JK Rowling seems to enjoy them, and Stephen King adds a number of them too despite his own quote. But it’s as you point out–we need to know when not to use them, and if we do use them, put them in only when they add something that would be missing without them. Of course, that’s easier said than done…

    Great post as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoy a good adverb, so I find it alarming when I read articles about how they should be banned from writing.

      You can’t argue with Rowling’s success…and sometimes I wonder what King thinks when people keep quoting that one line from his book out of context. You’re right that he uses them, too. As always, balance is good. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My habitual weakness tends to be qualifying descriptions of things. For example, the “tends to be” in that previous sentence. The agony of it is that I am aware that almost none of these qualifiers need to be in the sentence, but I feel like they need to be there for the sake of accuracy.

    After all, I don’t qualify descriptions of everything. Not all of them, anyway. So my tendency to do that is a tendency, not an absolute rule. And therefore I’m misleading if I claim something is true more than it actually is. Thus the drive to write precisely forces me to write vaguely. It’s a wonder I finish anything.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Feeling the need to qualify is a good thing, since it means we’re really thinking about things! Joseph, your posts and comments are always such a highlight of my day. Keep writing vaguely, you have a true gift. 🙂

      Like

    1. Yes, it’s a state of the art robot. 🙂 Adverb angst is quite common in writing advice, which is why I decided to tackle it here and attempt to wrestle it into perspective. Will be by for sure to check out your post!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. whenever I read something about adverbs, I feel like rereading my posts, but then I think that will make me sad, so I don’t. I just write and read and edit and read and so on. Maybe I’ll start thinking about these adverbs you speak of. I noticed that the robot was set to a pretty low power level. What happens at full power?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dan, I feel that way about a lot of writing advice. I use adverbs just like everyone else, so I try not to worry about it too much – I see it as a chance to tighten my writing when I have time to focus on it. Frequent blogging doesn’t fit well with that level of scrutiny! So keep on writing. 🙂

      I asked my son what happens at full power and he got an alarmingly thoughtful look on his face – I’m thinking maybe it takes away ALL descriptive words, and maybe I will be in trouble when he finally gets around to inventing it for real!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The adverb sucking robot is probably going to come for me now but I can’t say I hate them. I try to avoid ones that don’t add anything to sentences, especially “very,” but if it feels like it fits then I will put it in. Maybe I should cut back, because I almost threw a “really” in the previous section. D:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did I hear an ominous beep coming your way? 😉

      If I went back through all my emails and comments and checked for every time I said “very” or “really,” I’m sure it would be overwhelming! Sometimes it’s the only way to go. Not to mention adverbs are the most delightfully delicious words to read out loud!

      Like

  5. This is great–so clear and concise. Helpful, too! And that illustration rocks. I find adverbs useful when they provide some kind of info. that’s not what the reader would expect–like someone smiling menacingly, or laughing coldly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Brenna!

      If I ever decide to commission a robot, I am definitely getting my son to design it. 🙂

      That’s a great point about the unexpected – what a perfect place for adverbs. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t understand the extremely negative [or is that “dire”?] view of adverbs that some people have.

      Like

  6. What a fun story!! I’m glad you’re not professing a 100% hard rule regarding adverbs. So many authors I know quote Stephen King, Strunk & White, and Elmore Leonard religiously, even though they contradict each other on several points (like semicolons). As always, you made it super easy to see how and why we remove/keep an adverb. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you had fun with it, Alex! I like to think there isn’t much in the way of a 100% rule on anything – life is way too complex for that way of thinking. 🙂

      I know authors (and others) who do the same fixed quoting thing – if it works for them, then that’s wonderful, but I think everything is dependent on a specific context. It makes things more of a challenge, but I do so love a challenge! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lolly, Lolly Lolly
    Get your adverb sucking robot here!
    There’s a lolly, jolly
    Adverb sucking robot here!

    OK, my lame attempt at recreating Schoolhouse Rock! 😀 Love the story and, as always, the relevant examples. Since I don’t write for anything other than free/bloggity, I don’t worry so much about this but I may start checking for the heck of it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Schoolhouse Rock! Yes! I adore the one on adjectives, too. Heck, all of them really. 🙂

      Now I am picturing the robot holding a lollipop – a good way to make that process less intimidating…

      You might want to try putting one of those posts of yours through the Hemingway app just for fun. I’m always amazed at how many adverbs sneak in there in mine, although I don’t beat myself up over it!

      Conversational writing like blogging ends up having more adverbs, and hey, I like the fun ones. 🙂

      Like

      1. I liked the gramnar and multiplication ones the best. Science wasn’t as catchy 😀

        I may give that a try and post the results!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I echo all the wonderful comments above. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and the drawing. The examples you used are spot on. I haven’t come across the Hemingway app before, but I’m going over there – right now! It is truly amazing how many adverbs sneak into my writing when I’m not looking! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! They do tend to creep in there, don’t they? I find Hemingway is a good app for quickly checking on some common writing issues like adverbs or the passive voice. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m loving it so far! I used a five hundred word example of my current WIP, and found the results fascinating. I like that it assesses readability, and suggests simpler alternatives to phrases. I’ll continue to play with it. It’s clear, and easy to use. You’re absolutely right – for a quick check, it’s just what the editor ordered!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This was fun… and congrats your son for the pic 🙂

    I’ve noticed that I use a lot less adverbs today then I did when I first started writing in English. I don’t think we should get rid of adverbs altogether (saem as I don’t think we should ‘show’ everything), but I do think most of the time we don’t need adverbs, for the reason you said. And when we don’t use many of them, when we do decide to use one, that’s powerful.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you liked it, Sarah! I’ll be sure to pass your words along to my son. 🙂

      I was going through some of my old writing the other day, and there were so many adverbs I cringed. I think we all start that way, but gradually gain confidence in other ways of writing.

      I love your thought on increasing the effect of adverbs. 🙂 Adverb power!

      Liked by 1 person

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