January 24, 2015 by Nathaniel Tower
We’ve all heard that we need to avoid adverbs at all costs in our writing. We’ve even heard that the “road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Nearly every list of writing tips from the experts—whether these experts be writing professors, famous authors, or just self-proclaimed writing gurus—contains something about brutally killing all adverbs.
During one of the many rounds of edits for my first novel, the publisher informed me that I must savagely eliminate all adverbs.
“All of them?” I inquisitively asked.
They were very firm on this. One of the absolute non-negotiables.
“But I can use a few, right?”
Only if they are truly necessary. And most definitely aren’t.
So I deleted about 99% of the adverbs, even many of the ones I thought I needed. Was my book better for it? Well, probably not.
I recently read The Shining, my first Stephen King novel. You know, Stephen King, the champion of the “no adverbs in your writing” theory. I was shockingly amazed by the number of adverbs in the novel. Some sentences contained 4 or 5 of the grotesquely horrible creatures. And you know what…it didn’t take anything away from the quality of the writing. Gasp!
Was my editor right to tell me to remove all my adverbs? Or was she maybe taking some writerly advice a bit too literally?
Pick up just about any popular or acclaimed book. Look for adverbs. I promise you will find many. In particular, I’m talking about those ugly, no-good “-ly” adverbs—the kind that all writers are trained to hate passionately—um, I mean, with a passion.
So why aren’t you supposed to use them in your own writing? Is this just one of those “rules” you have to learn first and then break later? If you can master writing without adverbs, then you can eventually add adverbs. Or are adverbs just the universal sign of weak writing?
Truthfully, it depends on what they are doing. If the adverbs are doing the majority of the work in the sentence, then yes, they probably do weaken the writing. Could a better action verb have done that work instead? Maybe. Could clearer dialogue have shown the reader that the character was saying something “excitedly”? Definitely.
That doesn’t mean that adverbs need to be avoided at all costs. In many cases, adverbs work quite well. In reality, adverbs are like any other word. Use them when you need them, avoid them when you don’t.
“I’m sorry,” she said sympathetically.
He slammed the door furiously.
Obviously, you don’t need those adverbs. If she’s saying sorry, we assume she is sympathetic. If he is slamming the door, we assume he is furious.
But what if you want to tell your readers that someone walked slowly? Should you say “walked slowly,” or should you look for another word, like “ambled” or “strolled”? Maybe, but maybe “ambled” does not accurately describe the character’s slow walk. You could say “walked at a slow pace,” but that can’t possibly be better than “walked slowly.” Stephen King would agree. In fact, characters did something “slowly” no fewer than 52 times in The Shining.
Moby Dick uses over 4,000 adverbs. Pride and Prejudice and The Shining each contain over 2,500. If the road to hell is really paved with adverbs, then many famous pieces of literature are eternally damned. At least hell will have plenty of interesting stories.
Of course, no famous writer—Stephen King or otherwise—ever definitively said you can’t use any adverbs. Just use them sparingly. Or, to put it more appropriately, use them necessarily. I mean, use them when they’re necessary. But the same is true for any other word or any other part of speech.
Is your book going to hell? It might not be adverbs that send it there. If your hope for a better novel is simply to delete all your adverbs, then you are headed recklessly down the wrong path.