The Printed Fox: For Writers By Writers | The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs

Monday, March 18, 2013

For Writers By Writers | The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs

On Writing

Anyone who is a fan of Stephen King's fiction might've read his book On Writing.

If you're a writer and you haven't, shame on you.

'Kay, not really shame, but seriously, why not? One of the most well-known and loved writers of our time has put together a book on your craft. Why wouldn't you want to get your grubby little hands on it at the first opportunity and devour what's inside?

In it, he says the road to hell is paved with adverbs. In fact, he compares them to dandelions:

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. --Stephen King, "On Writing"

On Editing Adverbs

Of course, I don't believe it's ever too late. If you're determined, and you have a dedicated editor, you can weed your entire literary lawn of all but the most necessary of adverbs. If they're ubiquitous in your writing, prepare for a lot of pain and a massive re-write, but consider it lesson learned. Like an intense workout leaves you sore, think of it as growth.

Growth through pain. Learn to love the pain. And let it be a Pavlovian kind of motivation to stay the frack away from adverbs and actually write something real.

Why are they compared to weeds and the paving stones of Hell's Road? Because they're signs of lazy writing. Of juvenile writing. And --worst of all-- of timid writing.

Rumor has it F. Scott Fitzgerald said of adverbs, "Don't use adverbs so often because it makes you look like an amateur jackass, loser!" but so far I haven't been able to substantiate that. It makes me laugh, though.

Every time I see an adverb, I want to ask the writer why on earth I'm even reading their work. They're not bothering to give me a story. They're showing me nothing, and telling me everything. When I pick up a book, I want to watch the story unfold in my head, not listen as someone gives me a secondhand account. Isn't "show, don't tell" one of the most basic rules of storytelling?

How Not to Use Adverbs

"She got into the car seductively."
"He got clumsily to his feet."
"...she said threateningly."

[insert eye roll here]

What does "seductively" even look like? What is "clumsily" to me? Or "threateningly." What does that look like? What's on their face? How are they holding themselves? What came before and after that adverb? For crimeny's sake, what are these people doing? Show me that instead, because I don't even know what your adverbs look like to you and --as an avid reader who is happy to give my money to writers in exchange for my valuable time well-spent with a damn good book-- I really don't care.

There is Hope! How To Fix It

What about:
"She nipped his bottom lip and gave him a knowing smile. Saucy minx, he thought, as she slinked into the passenger seat, careful to give him a tempting flash of leg as she settled in."

"He reached for the counter to steady himself. His bum leg protested, like it always did, at being asked to work. It seemed to think it was here for decoration. He hoisted himself to his feet, staggering a little and wishing like hell she wasn't here to see this."

"She banged her fist on the desk. 'Damn it, Johnny! One more word and so help me...'"

See the difference? Stephen King talks about context being important, about showing what's happening around that adverb to give the words color and texture. From the examples, which ones actually get the point and picture across?

With strong context and good description, a writer can see adverbs for the clunky, extraneous paving stones they are. As the life-sucking weeds in the beautiful garden of your writing.

Kill your darlings. Show what's going on. Dare yourself to put your foot down and write like a boss.

You love writing?

Show it.

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