For Writers: What’s so Bad about Adverbs?

Have you ever played Tom Swiftie? I’m referring to the word game many of us learned as children where you make a sentence in the format: (Statement) + Tom said + (punny adverb). Here are a few of my favorites.

“This lemonade needs more sugar,” Tom said sourly.

“I’m not good at darts,” Tom said aimlessly.

“I only have diamonds, clubs, and spades,” Tom said heartlessly.

“I dropped the toothpaste,” Tom said crestfallenly.

If you have fun with this, keep it out of your writing. The adverbs in these sentences, while good for making puns, can suck the life out of fiction. Steven King perhaps popularized this notion more than any other fiction writer. The Dorrance Publishing website has a page with 20 of Steven King’s top rules for writing. Numbers 3 and 4 concern (not using) adverbs.

3. Avoid adverbs. You need to do the work prior to using an adverb so that it isn’t necessary as a descriptor. If your characters are in a heated argument, you need to create the drama leading up to an exit so that you don’t need to say that the character slammed the door, forcefully. Forcefully should be redundant.

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” (Sorry, Tom S.) According to King, “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” You don’t need to add an adverb after “he said” or “she said.” Just keep it simple.

“Authors’ Rules for Writing: Stephen King

In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he gets even more critical. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Whether you are a fan of King or not, I believe the greatest reason for his success is his ability to paint vivid scenes and characters in the reader’s imagination. So we would do well to heed his advice. Why is he so down on adverbs? Let’s explore that for a few minutes.

#3 Avoid Adverbs

So what’s wrong with adverbs? As a kid who grew up on Schoolhouse Rock, I can still sing the chorus and most verses of “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here.” Now, as a writer, the experts tell me I should let Lolly keep their adverbs. As with most writing rules, when I first learned this, my first instinct was to rebel. What did I spend those Saturday mornings watching cartoons for if it’s to forget the grammar I learned?

“An adverb is a word, that modifies a verb …” or props up a weak verb.

But as with most writing rules, as I sit with it, it makes sense. In the last post, I talked about the importance of using strong verbs instead of weak verbs. This rule is a corollary of that. As King indicated in Rule #3, strong verbs make adverbs unnecessary and redundant. If Tom slammed the door, there’s no need to add “forcefully.”

Think of this sentence. She walked slowly. The adverb here props up the weak verb walked. How could we say that without the adverb?

She crept. She tiptoed. She shuffled.

Self-Publishing School: Ultimate Strong Verb List
See complete list at https://self-publishingschool.com/strong-verbs-list/

Do you see how using a strong verb makes any adverb unnecessary or even redundant? Not only that, the strong verb paints a more vivid picture than the verb/adverb combination we used originally.

So the lesson here is watch out for verb/adverb combinations. When you see one, try to find a stronger verb.

#4 “He/She said,” No Adverb

Now we go after Tom Swiftie. King’s 4th Rule refers specifically to using an adverb with “he said” or “she said.” Again, if you do the other parts of your writing well, you shouldn’t need an adverb in that case. The action and dialog should make the emotion behind it clear without any adverbs. One of Elmore Leonard’s cardinal rules was you should never need any dialog tag other than said. I think it’s safe to say he would agree with King on this.

Consider this example. “That’s not funny,” he said angrily.

The dialog here does not clearly communicate anger, so the writer used the adverb, angrily. But as an article on Autocrit said, “An adverb in a dialogue tag means you probably have to rewrite the dialogue itself.” How could we change this dialog?

“That’s not funny, you disgusting pig,” he said. Now there’s no need for an adverb.

You can also use action if you prefer. He grabbed the joker by the throat. “That’s not funny,” he said. Or something simpler. “That’s not funny,” he said through clenched teeth.

Those are just some examples, hopefully enough to demonstrate that “said” with an adverb is not the most powerful way to convey emotion. And this is really part of the “Show don’t tell” rule. Instead of telling the reader what the character is feeling—angry, frustrated, happy, sad, etc.—show the emotion through action and dialog.

Breaking the Rules I Just Told You

On why the road to hell is paved with adverbs, King says,

“To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”

Stephen King

Did you notice he used adverbs? Totally, completely, profligately. Yes they are adverbs, but they do not break the rules. You want to avoid verb/adverb combinations, and you want to avoid adverbs with dialog tags. His adverbs do not describe a verb but an adjective (“covered”). If you think covered is a verb, it can be. But in this sentence, it’s a past participle, which can be used as an adjective.

Bottom line, the goal is not to eliminate all adverbs. The goal is to make your writing vivid and compelling to the reader. And these two rules will help you do that.

Exercise

On your work-in-progress, pull up the search function (Find in MS Word). Search for ly. This will be at the end of almost all offending adverbs. If your adverb is paired with a verb, replace it with a strong verb that makes the adverb unnecessary.

If it is a Tom Swiftie (“he said adverb”, “she said adverb”) you can try two things.

  1. Remove the adverb. Is the meaning still clear? Congratulations. You wrote it well but just didn’t know it.
  2. If the meaning is not clear, add some action or make the dialog sharper until the adverb is unnecessary.

https://pin.it/23CUIsQ

References

For more on reworking those unnecessary adverbs, see

Adverbs in Dialog,” Autocrit.

I believe the road to Hell is paved with adverbs,” Goodreads.

Authors’ Rules for Writing: Stephen King,” Dorrance Publishing.

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