Monday, September 6, 2010

Lessons Learned: Adverbs Suck

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.” --Stephen King, On Writing

One of the best lessons I learned while collaborating on a middle grade mystery novel was one that I should have learned from reading Stephen King. Nope – nothing to do with evil clowns, pet cemeteries, possessed cars or even girls named Carrie. This was a writing lesson from one of the most prolific writers of our lifetime. If I’d only remembered what I had underlined and studied from his book On Writing…perhaps I would have saved my partner and I the time it took to perform the dreaded adverb-ectomy.

After months of writing and a couple of “finished” version of the manuscript, I had a vague recollection of Stephen King’s admonishment on the horror of the adverb (see quote above). And if anyone knows about horror… it would be the man from Castle Rock.

I sat down at my kitchen table to perform the all-important surgery. I needed to seek out the evil adverbs, and then do something about them.

It took hours to perform the adverb-ectomy on nearly 200 pages of our novel. Then the rinse-repeat part of our edit cycle meant Sayantani spent more hours reviewing my changes. Honestly, though, I learned a lot from that exercise. Rewriting sentences to avoid adverbs was…well…kind of fun (in a geeky, writer-playing-with-words sort of way). It was also a huge step toward making our manuscript stronger and more marketable.

If you don’t know how to use the search feature in Word (or whatever word processing software you use), figure it out. Search for any word ending in –ly. You won’t find all adverbs that way, but it will catch a bunch of them. When you find one, get rid of it. Delete. If the road to hell is paved with them, don’t be afraid to create some great big pot holes! Take a hard look at the verb that little sucker was modifying. See what you can do: make it stronger, use a different verb, punch it up a little. You can do it. Don’t be timid. And if you don’t have a writing partner, find someone from your critique group to look over your work. Ask your spouse, partner, friend, neighbor… I promise they will tell you it is better; you just made your story stronger.

And whatever you do—please, oh please! – don’t use adverbs when attributing dialog. He said wonderingly…She grunted dubiously….They shouted deafeningly…

Seriously. Don’t do it.

If you don’t believe me, go read Mr. King’s On Writing. Excellent resource for any writer – beginning or otherwise.


  1. HAH!!! Oh - drat -- using exclamation points and en and em dashes is bad too?!!! (she typed furiously, with her lugubrious fingers...)

  2. Oh, trust me! Those damnable dashes are on my list!!! (oh...and the !!!, too!!!) :)

  3. Kudos to you, Karen, and a nod to Mr. King: I adored this post, because in the writer's group I belong to, one of the books we recommend most is "On Writing." I've skimmed through plenty of times but have begun working my way through it slower - and with a highlighter - now.

    So...when I get to the part about those evil adverbs, I'll definitely remember this post. :)

  4. Thanks, Sabrina. It is pretty much the best book about writing, craft, and the writing life I've found out there. And no one can argue he doesn't know how to make a living at this crazy work! Hope you enjoy other posts, too!