The road to hell is paved with adverbs

The title of this post is a Stephen King quotation. I’ve never actually read Stephen King (I know, I know…) though every other author claims that his On Writing is one of the best things an aspiring author can read ever.

The topic for my first Writing Wednesday (which, by the way, might not be weekly like Music Monday, but we’ll see) is adverbs.


A definition and a few examples.

For some reason, writers disprove of adverbs with a passion. Or, I suppose if I wanted to rile adverb-haters up, I would say they dislike them TREMENDOUSLY.

Some writers concede that the occasional adverb is okay, but warn against overuse. I understand that: too many adverbs and your writing becomes weak. If you rely on adverbs to get your message across, then it makes you seem like you can’t use your words to describe ideas/images to your readers. And isn’t that what writing’s all about?

But then other writers wave their pens around (frantically) and cry “NO! NEVER! ADVERBS SUCK! DON’T USE THEM”, and you kinda have to wonder what their issue is.

I like adverbs (though now I’ve said ‘adverb’ so many times it’s stopped looking like a real word). I think if used sparingly (like that!) or appropriately (one more!) then all you need is one extra word in your sentence for the reader to see and think “AH, I understand how this character feels”.

Here is a partial conversation:

“Don’t tell me she’s already got to you too! Pippa is just superstitious, right, Finn? Remember when you tried to adopt the black cat?”

“Huh, I almost forgot about him. [ ]” Finn said [insert adverb here]

Just based on this conversation, can you tell how Finn replied? Did he reply reluctantly? Evasively? Sarcastically? Angrily? Thoughtfully? Happily? Cheerfully (which I guess is the same as happily, but more exuberant, I imagine)? Tiredly?

“Well, maybe if you provide us with some CONTEXT, we could figure it out!” you shout at me, to which I reply “DON’T YELL AT ME. But you’re right.”

Because, according to some writers, if you give your readers enough context, enough description, SHOW rather than TELL (which is a rule on its own that I’ll talk about later), you don’t need adverbs.

So here’s the context for that conversation:

Olivia (the first speaker) and Finn (her best friend) are at a party where Olivia is humiliating their (former) friend Pippa. Olivia has issues with Pippa but Finn doesn’t approve of their feud (the readers would know all this already since this scene is from chapter 4).

Now can you figure out how he said it?

HESITANTLY. That’s the word I used. I’m not sure how I would describe “hesitant” without using the word “hesitant” (or “hesitating”). If I tried to SHOW rather than TELL, I would end up with a complicated description of what Finn’s face looked like as he spoke i.e. Finn raised his eyebrows, squinted his eyes, and added a questioning lilt to the end of his sentence (which, to me, represents doing something “hesitantly” but to a reader might mean “Finn turned into a near-sighted up-talker”).

Or, I could add one adverb and save everyone some time. Which seems lazy, but since I’m not Dickens and I won’t be paid by the word, I might as well save the detailed descriptions for a more important scene. Right?

As long as your sentence doesn’t end up being something like “the fox quickly, quietly, stealthily and sneakily walked over the fence” it’s perfectly reasonable to pepper your work with the odd adverb or two.

I can readily admit to having a problem in that I often use adverbs, but what’s the point of them existing if you can’t use them eloquently? (that last one might have been a stretch…)

Edit: November 2015

I noticed that this post gets a lot of views for some reason (possibly the image), which is great, but it’s really not my best writing :) So if you’re here for the words and not the graphic, you could also click here for a better post. Or here or maybe even here! You might even want to check out my book reviews! Either way, thanks for stopping by!

2 thoughts on “The road to hell is paved with adverbs

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