Adverbs: Friend or foe?

One of the students I meet with at Kristin School asked if using adverbs was a good practice.

It was a good question because I frequently see writing that is heavy in its use of adverbs. As I read, I watch the energy seep away with each appearance.

This has undoubtedly led to Stephen King’s proclamation ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs . . . .’

I was influenced by this quote for many years and avoided adverbs like the plague, believing that there was no place in any sentence for an adverb. I followed this faithfully, until I put my writing through the Style Guide and found it fell below the bottom line of the grid. My heart sank into my boots. I had discovered an important lesson in writing: that no rule is so hard and fast that there are no occasions when it should be broken. My writing had become flat and passive

Okay, so where does that leave us and Stephen King’s decree?

I have found that there are, without doubt, times when we should avoid, at all cost, words that end in ‘ly.’ There is nothing more disappointing than reading a passage that goes:

‘The horse ran quickly around the field’ or ‘the child walked slowly to school.’

Why disappointing? Because the reader, will struggle to visualise ‘slowly’, and ‘quickly.’ They are nebulous words. They give us no detail about the child’s or the horse’s gait. Although at first it appears we are told what each is doing, we discover that, in fact, we are told nothing. For example, how slowly, how quickly?

Consider these.

‘The horse galloped around the field’ or ‘the child ambled to school.’

Galloped could be replaced by cantered or trotted and we get a clearer picture of how the horse is running. The same goes for the example of ‘the child walked slowly.’ So what? As a reader, should I care if the child walked slowly or quickly? No, I shouldn’t because the description is like a mirage shimmering in the distance. It is meaningless.

By adding some more description, we engage the reader in what the child is doing. ‘The child sauntered’ helps. We understand ‘sauntered.’

If we add ‘with head bent,’ we start to see that this child might be sad. We could even say, ‘with head bent sadly.’ Another adverb. But do we need that adverb? I would suggest not. When we add adverbs like ‘sadly’ we complicate the picture. Sadly, like slowly and quickly, goes part way to describing what is happening but it can mean a myriad of levels of sadness. Is the child sobbing, scowling? The adverb flattens the writing and sucks the energy out of the piece.

However, add some more description and see what happens. Why not ‘head bent with tears catching on his/her eyelashes.’ Now we know the ‘sadly’ refers to a certain level of sadness and we, as the readers empathise with the child and want to know what brought the sadness on. Would we have been so keen to know why if the writer had left us with the child walking sadly? I think not. In fact, I find myself shrugging and saying, ‘so what.’

These examples of adverb use add very little to the overall picture and this is why Stephen King and other writers advise us to avoid them.

However, there are occasions when they serve a good purpose. This is when they emphasise a situation. How about the words very, also, subsequently, just? Let’s take a look at the sentence about the child which now reads ‘The child sauntered to school, head bent, with tears forming runnels down his cheeks. He was also scuffing his shoes.’ We know now the degree of emotional tearfulness. The description is now much fuller than the original sentence and we’ve used an adverb, ‘also’ to add to the reading experience.

It’s all about use and over use. Adverbs have their place in writing but be aware of their impact. I give the last words to Stephen King because what he says is absolutely (oh there you go, an adverb which I choose to use) right.

‘Adverbs . . . 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 . . . .”