Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” As writers, it is important to understand all the different parts of speech and how they work in our writing. With this word of caution, learning about adverbs seems even more essential. What are adverbs exactly? How do they function? If they damage writing to the extent King implies, then why do they even exist? And, most importantly, what do you need to know when it comes to adverbs and your own personal writing?
The Adverb Basics
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines adverbs as “a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree.” This consists of most words that end in “ly,” such as gently, swiftly, kindly, harshly, quickly, etc. Other adverbs include never, often, fast, too, very, often, always, then, etc. Notice that adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs; this means that you can attach an adverb to basically any part of speech besides nouns and pronouns. Here are some examples, with the adverbs bolded:
She quickly walked down the street.
He promised to always love her.
His painfully bright flashlight blinded me.
She will be at the store then.
In the four examples above, notice the placement of the adverbs. In the first example, “quickly” modifies the way she walks. The word “walked” is a verb which is one of the possibilities for adverbs to modify. Similarly, the adverb in the second example, “always,” modifies the verb “love” and implies the degree/manner in which he will love her. In Example C, the adverb “painfully” modifies the adjective “bright” and further expounds on how bright the flashlight is. The final example uses the adverb “then,” which functions to show time in this sentence.
Adverbs in Fiction
With that explanation, we might not understand why Stephen King condemns adverbs. At first glance they seem harmless, and many sentences could not function without them. However, like any crucial writing device, they can be misused and bog down your writing. For example:
The glaringly obvious mistake she carelessly made seemed simply impossible to ever fix.
This sentence sounds off when you first read it although you might not immediately notice why unless you look specifically for adverb. Notice that the relatively short sentence has four adverbs. Now, compare that sentence to this improved version:
The obvious mistake she carelessly made seemed impossible to fix.
In the improved version, only one adverb remains, but the sentence still contains the same meaning. I opted to keep “carelessly,” as it seems somewhat essential to the sentence because it explains the manner in which she acted. The other adverbs acted more as fillers and fluff and did not convey further meaning.
With this example, you can likely see the crux of the adverb problem: adverbs are easy to throw in for additional detail, but they make your sentences wordy without adding substance. Adverbs help writers take the shortcut in writing and instead of the “show, don’t tell” method, they throw adverbs around. Howard Mittelmark, author of How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, explains, “Overuse at best is needless clutter; at worst, it creates the impression that the characters are overacting, emoting like silent film stars.” To avoid this melodramatic situation in your writing, try counting the number of adverbs you use in a paragraph. If you notice more than two in each sentence on a consistent basis, take extra care to comb through for adverbs during your editing process.
Adverbs and Dialogue
For writers like Stephen King who condemn adverbs, their biggest complaint often relates to adverbs with dialogue. As any avid reader will notice, some authors prefer to embellish dialogue tags, using phrases like “cried vindictively” and “screamed hoarsely.” Successful writers and editors disagree on the topic, but the consensus is that too many adverbs in dialogue tags will harm rather than help.
Elmore Leonard, the late American novelist, once said, “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’… he admonished gravely.” As this humorous quote implies, the use of adverbs in dialogue is often overkill. Writers commonly use the dialogue tag verb, “said,” at the end of dialogue by itself. Many experienced writers and writer guides suggest using the verb “said” in most situations, but, in special circumstances, “said” can be exchanged with other verbs. Simply put, some sentences you write should be whispered or yelled rather than said. Rather than writing “she said softly,” eliminate the adverb and write, “whispered,” “murmured,” “muttered,” or other similar action words. When needed, one active verb like “admonished” works better than using “said” and an adverb, such as “said critically.” If you overuse adverbs with dialogue, it will stick out to readers and make your writing wordy.
However, with all of that being stated, adverbs exist for a reason and can add meaning to sentences when used correctly. We cannot eliminate all adverbs from our writing, nor should we. Although he criticized adverbs, Mittelmark also added, “Still, an adverb can be exactly what a sentence needs. They can add important intonation to dialogue, or subtly convey information.” Overall, do not panic over every single adverb in your writing, but search for places you might overuse adverbs, and your writing will likely improve as a result.