Kill Your Adverbs

Stephen King said, “I believe the road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” But the pesky devils sneak into your fiction—pull out any work-in-progress and there they are, lurking.

According to author Beth Ann Erickson, schools are still teaching adverbs as a noble and honorable part of sentence structure. “Just before school finished for the year, my son came home from his sixth-grade class with a homework assignment involving adverbs. I’ve never seen so many ly words in my life!”

Invoking shame (bad adverbs!) will not undo the damage of a good public education. Perhaps an explanation of why adverbs are verboten is in order.

We live in a fast-paced world, and the day of the slow read (which coincided, by the way, with authors who were paid by the word) is over. Readers want to “get to the meat,” and adverbs are filler.

Consider, “He skipped merrily.” How do you skip morosely? Don’t waste your reader’s time adding an adverb to a verb that means the same thing. If you write, “she trudged slowly through the field,” it will force your reader to do the same thing with your prose.

Adverbs can support weak verbs, but if a verb is weak, why subject your reader to it? Lazy writers use easy verbs and then try to pin down meaning with an adverb. Work for the right verb instead.

Adverbs “hedge” the truth. “The man nearly died” makes no sense in terms of either life or death. The observation that “he apparently failed” doesn’t address failure, it addresses appearances of failure. “He probably lied” hides an accusation behind a modifier. Writing is about honesty, and adverbs can shift your prose away from the truth.

Worst of all, adverbs don’t “show,” they “tell.” Active, well-chosen verbs “show.” Which of the following is more active, more immediate? “She smiled crazily,” or “She smiled, her mouth open and wet, her eyes wide, gazing at, or rather, through him.” Instead of noting the white-knuckle grip of a man on the arms of his chair, or observing the way he squeaks the vinyl when he shifts in his seat, adverbs tell us that the man is “sitting nervously.”

Armed now with good reasons, and your desire to create readable fiction, go forth and kill your adverbs. Erase them, delete them.

Quickly, now.


About Brian C. Kaufman

Author, educator, cook. Given a tilt of fate, that might have been lead guitarist, pro wrestler, radio evangelist. You never know.
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