“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King
No offense to Stephen King and the myriad of other writers and editors who believe that adverbs have no place anywhere in the writing process, but I’m here to offer a different point of view.
Don’t worry – I’ not going to take a pro adverbs-in-every-other-sentence-in-the-final-draft stance, ok? So you can put the pitchforks down, now. But the truth is, adverbs can be tools that you can use early in the writing process to create interesting and engaging prose.
But before we get to that, we need to go over why adverbs are considered so heinous in the first place.
Why not adverbs?
There are several reasons why adverb are considered sloppy and ineffective writing. Here’s the short list:
- They’re unclear.
“He followed her sneakily.” What does that mean, exactly? Is he jumping behind bushes and ducking into edifices mock-007 style? Or is he simply keeping to the shadows? “sneakily” does not give your readers a clear description of what your character is actually doing.
- They’re weak.
adverbs are inherently weak constructions. For every verb/adverb combination, there’s a stronger, more accurate verb. Why say “He followed her sneakily” When you can say “He stalked her” to better effect?
- They’re inefficient.
For reasons of both overall word count and immediacy, it is usually better to err on the side of brevity in writing. Remember: one clear, strong word is better than two weak, unclear words!
- They’re awkward.
“Sneakily.” “abashedly.” “circumspectly.” Because adverbs are derivative of adjectives (and sometimes nouns and verbs), they tend to sound clumsy, even when we’re reading them to ourselves in our heads. This makes it more likely that we will trip over them. Which leads us to…
- They’re obvious.
We want our writing to be as unobtrusive as possible, meaning we don’t want our readers to notice the text itself as they’re reading it. The writing should be a vehicle for the story we’re trying to tell. But readers notice adverbs. It may only last for a fraction of a second, but it’s enough to pull them out of the story – making them less invested and more likely to stop reading.
- They’re unnecessary.
In his book On Writing, King claims that writers who are not confident in their own writing abilities overuse adverbs because they are afraid that, without them, their writing will not get their point across to their readers. Often, though, you can simply cut the adverb and still find that your original meaning is intact (and stronger!).
This is especially true with dialogue – the verb most likely to have an adverb tacked onto it is “said.” Note that with “said” you shouldn’t look for a stronger verb (for instance, you shouldn’t change “he said angrily” to “he barked”). Rather, the dialogue itself should be strong enough to denote the speaker’s emotion.
How adverbs help you write a better book
With all that, you might be tempted to never type the morpheme ‘-ly’ ever again, in any stage of your writing. I’m going to propose a different process.
During your first draft, allow yourself to use adverbs with abandon. Don’t worry about them being unclear or obvious or any of the detriments listed above. Giving yourself the freedom to do so will make the drafting stage go by much faster and be much less stressful.
Then, when you’re ready to edit, use adverbs as signposts. Search for ‘-ly’ using your word processor’s ‘find’ feature (note that not all adverbs end in ‘-ly’, and not all words that end in ‘-ly’ are adverbs). Then ask yourself, What did I really mean by ‘sneakily?’ What does that look like? What is the character doing that made me choose that adverb? Can I just cut it?
Then replace that adverb with a stronger verb, or a brief description of what your character’s doing. Or simply use the delete button. In the end, adverbs are just points in our writing where we felt we needed greater clarification. So give it.