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:
- The adverb is redundant. Having two words that mean the same thing weakens the sentence rather than strengthening it.
- The adverb is a useless intensifier like “very” or “really.” These intensifiers are overused and have become meaningless.
- 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.
“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?”
“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
“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.”
I was afraid that the robot would destroy my writing.
“But I’m not afraid! I’m really afraid. I’m…I’m…”
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.
The robot sucked away all her adverbs.
Adele stared at her paper and waited. But nothing happened.
“What, no boop this time?”
“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.”
“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 —”
She shook her head
“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!”
Adele thought maybe she could get used to that new sound. She looked over her page and realized that her writing did look better.
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