This post focuses on the misuse of adverbs in writing, one of The Cheeky One’s newfound pet peeves, as explained by Stephen King.  Whether you like his writing style or not, no one could reasonably argue Stephen King isn’t a wildly successful author.  I fall into the ‘not a big fan’ category and yet I still bought his book, “On Writing”.  What I liked is how readers get a candid look at his path from childhood to where he is today, along with a generous helping of his own methods for writing and finding motivation that never comes across like gospel.

I’m about as far from a professional writer as you can get, and yet I know common sense and good advice when I hear it, such as Mr. King’s chapter on Adverbs.  I can also smell dogma from miles away and avoid it like the plague; something spewed far too often in how-to writing books, and online writing university websites who want promise big bucks and fame within one short year if you follow their program to the letter, always in exchange for your hard-earned money of course.  Mind you, writing for me is a hobby and not something I need to put food on the table, so take everything I say with a huge grain of salt.  Certainly if your goal is to become a career writer, then slogging through the muck in undergraduate school, nodding and smiling at being criticized or told there is only one way to write something, and writing your ass off every day, are necessary evils.

But I digress…

What I really want to talk about is Adverbs.  I don’t know about you, but when I read a story that’s rife with them, it drives me batty to the point I usually stop reading…and yet, I never paid attention to them in my own writing because well, our own writing is profound, amazing, just wait till someone reads it!  Joking aside, since there’s no universe in which I could explain the problem with misusing adverbs better than Stephen King, I’ve included an excerpt from his book which highlights what he has to say on the subject:

“Adverbs, you will remember, … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me . . . but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s-GASP!!-too late.

“I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

“Put it down!” she shouted. “Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.” “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

“In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly. “Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.” “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemp­tuously.

“The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately. “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptu­ously is the best of the lot; it is only a cliché, while the other two are actively ludicrous. Such dialogue attributions are sometimes known as ‘Swifties,’ after Tom Swift, the brave inventor-hero in a series of boys’ adventure novels written by Victor Appleton II. Appleton was fond of such sentences as “Do your worst!” Tom cried bravely and “My father helped with the equations,” Tom said modestly. When I was a teenager there was a party-game based on one’s ability to create witty (or half-witty) Swifties. “You got a nice butt, lady,” he said cheekily is one I remember; another is “I’m the plumber,” he said, with a flush. (In this case the mod­ifier is an adverbial phrase.) …

“Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:

“Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated. “Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped. “You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.

“Don’t do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.

 Author: Stephen King

Title: On Writing

Publisher: Scribner

Date: Copyright 2000 by Stephen King Pages: 124-127

Alright readers, now we have a clear idea of how and why adverbs can diminish or make an otherwise good story cringe worthy, let’s take an unbiased look at our own writing.  About five minutes after reading this chapter, I opened up a few of my stories in MS Word with a smug smile, and used the “find all” function for every word ending in LY, confident I wouldn’t find many.  Well lemme tell ya, that little “find” pane on the left margin gave me “185 found” and a “Too many results to preview” message.  That wiped the smile off my face pretty damn fast.  Then, I realized that count included non-offensive words like “only”, so I searched online until I found a nifty (and free!) online text editor that checks for the “bad” adverbs along with other common writing sins,  So, I ran my 26,711 words through it and this is was my result:

  • Adverbs: 155
  • Weak Words: 132
  • Said: 76
  • Oft-Misspelled
  • Homonym: 770
  • Preposition End: 71
  • Passive: 207
  • Cliché: 6

Perhaps it’s not too terrible given the total word count, but those 155 adverbs and 207 passive verbs are still points in my story that may cause the reader to toss it aside with a disgusted snort.  Oh, and the 770 homonyms?  Turns out EditMinion flags them even if you’ve used the word correctly.  Phew…I didn’t actually make all of those transgressions.

I should also add that at this point in my life, I’d barely begun writing fiction, but despite having no formal writing education, the good feedback from other writers led me to assume I had a natural talent for avoiding this type of rookie mistake.  Pfft…arrogant much?  Hell yes I was and I owe Mr. King a huge thank you for smacking me into reality.

Anyway, what it really boils down to is the old writer’s mantra, “show don’t tell”, which is a lot harder than it may first appear because it means as a writer you have to show the reader your character does something menacingly, dejectedly, or craftily via their actions and/or appearance.  I found it hard to wrap my head around it until I started looking at my own stories with a more critical eye.  To further illustrate what I mean here’s a shameful example of “telling” vs. “showing” from my own writing:

Once inside, Lexi walked confidently towards the bar, navigating a sea of sweaty scantily clad youths, dancing maniacally to an undulating disco beat.  She finally made it to the bar after almost being knocked over by a waitress dressed in a white silk blouse and miniskirt carrying a tray of exotic beverages, and waited for the bartender.

The good looking man who leaned towards her asked what she wanted, and Lexi shouted, “Single malt, preferably Balvenie, straight up with a shot of water.”  He looked at her quizzically, and then turned around to get her drink.  When he slid the glass of amber liquid towards her, she dropped two fifty dollar bills and held his gaze meaningfully.  He inhaled sharply, but nodded, and turned to whisper into the other bartender’s ear, before coming around to grab her arm and lead her towards a staircase, blocked by an excessively large brute with a bald head and bulging muscles, straining against the ridiculous tuxedo he’d been forced to wear.  I guess when the say VIP, they mean VIP.  She almost laughed.

Yikes and cringe!  Nine adverbs in a 179 word sample, and no matter which story I checked, there they were like the little dandelions Mr. King warns about.  What’s baffling though is how easy they are to miss when you’re trying to edit your own story.  But, edit I did, and here are the same two paragraphs after I did some weeding:

Once inside, she headed for the bar; a near impossible task while pushing through the sea of feverish youths dancing to an undulating disco beat.  When she burst through the crowd, a waitress dressed in sexy black and white, rushed past with a tray full of exotic beverages and almost crashed into Lexi, but managed to shove her against an empty bar stool.  Looking away to avoid shooting the woman a nasty glance, Lexi slid onto the black leather seat and waited for the bartender.

A moment later, a good-looking male model type leaned forward and asked, “What can I get you?” He had to tilt his head to hear even though Lexi shouted.  “Single malt, Balvenie; straight up with a shot of water,” she said.  He arched a brow but grabbed a bottle and turned around to pour the scotch.  When he slid the glass of amber liquid towards her, she dropped two fifty dollar bills onto the bar and held his gaze.  There was no reaction beyond a sharp intake of breath until he nodded and turned to whisper into the other bartender’s ear, before coming around to grab her arm and lead her to a darkened staircase.  It was blocked by a large, bald brute whose bulging muscles strained against the ridiculous tuxedo he’d been forced to wear.  Well, she thought with a slight smirk, I guess when they say VIP, they mean VIP.  It would have been laughable, if she wasn’t certain the stairway led straight into hell.

Definitely no great literary work, but I think my revised version is leaps and bounds better than the original after a few simple changes, and I hope it shows how eliminating those pesky –LY words, can make the scene you’re trying to paint more enjoyable to read.

So, take a fresh look at some of your stories and run them through a good text editor.  Chances are you’ll be surprised at what you’re missing when you rely on your internal editor, but doing this will only make your writing stronger and appeal to a greater number of readers.

I’ll close by saying that despite the focus of this post, I don’t think it’s healthy to obsess about finding adverbs in your writings, because the odd one is more than acceptable.  I also believe they can be little gifts that point out areas we need to elaborate on and/or describe in a better way, so I don’t worry about them until the editing phase.  If I did, my internal editor would never shut up and I’d get nothing accomplished.  Besides, thanks to text editing software, I no longer worry about missing them or the myriad of other writing sins that never fail to pop up in whatever I write.

Happy adverb hunting!!

The Cheeky One