The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs
I’ve been reading a book lately and the first chapter had me question the way I write and edit my work. I wanted to share with you a little about what I have come to learn: that we need to talk about adverbs.
‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’ – Stephen King in On Writing
Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and many authors before and after have rallied against the use of extraneous language in writing. Less is more. As any of us who have sat down to edit will know: the more you can cut away, the better your work becomes. Kill your darlings! As many as you can.
The most famous short story, attributed to Ernest Hemmingway is this:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Those six words really pack a punch. But what is it in your writing that makes this concision possible and successful?
Ben Blatt, in his book Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, argues – with the crunched numbers to back it up – that adverbs could well be the key to success. Or, should I say, the exclusion of adverbs is.
I poured over the first chapter of his book, soaking up the data. Comparing author’s works and adverb count against each other; comparing within each author’s catalogue; looking at correlations between adverb count and bestseller status. It is hard not to come away hating the idea that you ever used an adverb at all.
What is an adverb?
For those of us that forgot every technical term from our English language lessons decades ago: An adverb is a modifier that describes the manner, time, or quality something is happening in (quietly, suspiciously, subtly, first, after).
Some are less obviously adverbs: then, there, too, quite. But it’s the “-ly” modifiers that get Stephen King’s back up (gently, quietly, smugly). These actually only make up around 20% of all adverbs and are the ones ripe for the cutting! (Full education on what an adverb is on Grammarly if you need a deep dive refresher).
What’s the issue with ‘-ly’ words?
The argument goes back to probably the most pertinent piece of writing advice out there – show, don’t tell.
Using a word like “sleepily” tells your reader what to think about the actions. A lot of words like this cropping up in your work have the propensity to encourage skim reading. Instead of engaging, readers will trudge through the content looking for the important parts. Lazy adverb use is a way for a writer to control what they want you to think. It tells you, without having to make you feel it yourself.
The argument goes that you should use more clues to help your reader understand that something is being done sleepily, rather than tell them directly. Context, body language, choice dialogue – all of these things should do the work of explaining how things are happening, not lazily relying on adverbs to do that job. For example:
‘Andrew ate the cake greedily”
is not as enjoyable to read as:
“Andrew handled the cake in his whole fist, pulling it to his mouth over and over without even the suggestion of a breath in-between”.
“‘I guess it’s mine then’, Nidhi smugly replied”
which could be improved to:
“‘I guess it’s mine then’, Nidhi said, cocking her head and smiling as she walked away.”
Finding ways to show emotions and show tension is one of my favourite parts of writing, and this was a great reminder to me to think more exactingly about adverbs in my edit.
Apply this to your writing: check your adverbs
What does this mean in practice? Well, there are a few things you can do. The main thing is to be intentional about the use of adverbs. If you spot one, ask yourself two things:
- Does the adverb actually modify the word it modifies? Does it make the verb or adjective mean something drastically different? If so, great, keep it.
- Does the adverb convey extra information in a way that cannot be explained with body language, contextual descriptions, actions, or even a stronger verb by itself? If so, great, keep it.
Adverbs can do great work in the right places, so if you’ve checked and it’s necessary, you’re all good.
For example, ‘carefully balanced her cup on her knee’ doesn’t tell us anything new, it doesn’t really modify the meaning of balanced – if she balanced it, she did it carefully. However, “absent-mindedly balanced the cup on her knee” does. She balanced it without even having to think about it or be careful; that’s not normally how balancing happens (but even then, I think there would be ways to show this without having to be so explicit – did she balance it on her knee whilst looking away and talking? Did someone watch with wide eyes as she did it?).
Sometimes a stronger verb is all you need. Instead of “She walked quickly”, you can replace replace “walked”, which is quite a weak verb, with a stronger verb like “hurried” or “ran”. Instead of “He said jokingly”, “he joked” is a more concise, tighter, and stronger sentence.
I hope this gives you some food for thought in your next edit! It all goes back to the best piece of writing advice I have ever had and always fall back to – Show, Don’t Tell.
I found this great resource for writers – a body language thesaurus from One Stop Writers. It has a comprehensive catalogue of emotions and body language associated with them. Definitely one to add to your toolkit.
Blatt deep dives into the catalogue of King, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and more, unpicking when this rule is true and where the outliers are (and there always are) in the first chapter of his book Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve: The Literary Quirks and Oddities of our Most-Loved Authors.
The rest of the book
It’s a fascinating read, and I’d highly recommend the book as a whole. Blatt later digs into the numbers behind cliches, book covers, most-used words, gender bias, exclamation points, best sentences in literature, best openings and endings, and so much more.