Ever heard of Stephen King? He’s an author – a really good one. His memoir, On Writing, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Though On Writing is filled to the brim with hundreds of memorable quotes on writing, on the writing process, etc., one quote in particular happened to stand out to readers, eventually becoming the most well-known quote from the book as it spread across the internet via blog posts, mixed media, literary articles, and even over-priced T-shirts.
The quote? “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
I’ve always admired Stephen King – as a writer, and as an individual – but the first time I read his quote, I was appalled. I refused to agree with that statement. In fact, I clung to my beloved adverbs in defiance, even going as far as to rebel against King’s strong assertion by weaving adverbs throughout my writing on purpose. I decorated my essays and dotted my short stories with as many “ly” words as I could muster. As I reread my writing, though, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that Stephen King had a point – sure, the adverbs added a splash of color to my writing, but they weren’t necessary. They didn’t strengthen the sentence, or the work as a whole.
I discovered that my excessive use of adverbs not only weakened the verbs or adjectives I was trying to modify, but tended to clutter my writing overall. When I threw adverbs into my writing just for the fun of it, I had to admit that the adverbs did not add much to what was already on the page. They weren’t necessary.
Now, I don’t think Mr. King’s ultimate goal is to eliminate adverbs altogether because adverbs do indeed serve a purpose when used appropriately. (See what I did there?) Adverbs only become problematic when used in excess and/or used when a stronger verb could be substituted in its place.
I did some research on when and when not to use adverbs in writing, and I learned a lot about how to assess whether to keep an adverb or delete it. Now I’m much more conscious of the use of “ly” words in my writing and I always take a moment to consider if a better word could be used to modify the noun. Because I’ve found this awareness to have improved my writing, I recommend that you do the same.
So when do you know if adverbs should be kept or discarded?
Let’s consider what an adverb even is. The official definition is: a word that describes or modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. In any sentence, an adverb answers the questions how, when, where, or to what degree something is happening. If you’re still a little uncertain about its usage, this is a great resource.
First, when editing your writing, look for adverbs that are redundant, or repeat something you’ve already said.
Here are a few examples:
Jane was extremely hungry because she hadn’t eaten for 14 hours.
When John saw the principal, he quickly ran away.
“I never want to speak to you again!” Joe shouted angrily.
Each of the italicized adverbs above is acting in a redundant way. These adverbs can all be safely cut from their sentences without altering the meaning or diluting the effect of the sentence. In Joe’s case, the reader can already assume that he’s angry, so the adverb “angrily” isn’t necessary.
Second, look for adverbs that are often overused.
One group of adverbs, known as intensifiers, is used so often that they often go unnoticed. A few examples of these adverbs include: actually, definitely, even, extremely, just, really, so, totally, truly, very. If you spot an intensifier, ask yourself: does deleting this word affect the sentence?
Third, consider using stronger verbs or more powerful, descriptive language.
Take the previous three example sentences:
Jane was ravenous because she hadn’t eaten for 14 hours.
When John saw the principal, he sprinted away.
“I never want to speak to you again!” Joe shouted, his expression contorted with rage.
Now those sentences tell the reader more about the situation or how the character feels than the adverb version of the sentences did, and they sound better too.
So now it’s your turn!
Revise your writing, and try deleting an adverb or two. I doubt including them will lead the way to eternal damnation, as Stephen King put it, but it won’t hurt to declutter a little.