Attack of the Adverbs!

“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 will 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: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 118

We’ll call it the J. K. Rowling syndrome. I’m not knocking her writing, but check this out:
“Hurry up,” she said tensely to Harry and Ron.
“Not the ruddy library again?” said Ron.
“No,” said Hermione curtly.

Rowling can pull this off because her books are “kid” books, and whimsical. For the rest of us, it’s not so cute. As King says later in the same chapter of On Writing, “When I do it [adverb abuse], it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t” (121).

I thought it’d be fun for me to give a before and after example of my own adverb infested writing.

BEFORE
She sighed irritably, fussing with the handkerchief she was tucking into the low bosom of her dress. Resignedly, she stuffed it into her corset, where it pressed uncomfortably between her breasts. “I’m not likely to forget something that important.”

He handed her a thick cream colored ribbon from the vanity. “Wear this… Your bosom’s rather bare.”

“I thought that was the point.” She met his eyes in the mirror as he tied the ribbon around her throat.

“It is, but you don’t need to get carried away.”

“I never get carried away,” she said airily, but they both laughed at that.

Joe led her down the inn’s stair well then, holding her hand lightly to ensure she did not fall off her heels or trip over her dress. She squeezed his hand fondly. It was a routine they’d performed more times than she remembered, perfectly dressed, perfectly prepared, vibrating with the thrill of the theft before them.They had every step down perfectly by now, though the other dancers, the music, and the location changed. Meet, seduce, find, steal. The details varied, but the dance remained the same.

NOTES
Now before you laugh at me, that series of ‘perfectly’s was intentional! Although, I did write that months ago, and I’m not so sure about it now. Still, let’s take a look. I think the context tells us she’s irritable. ‘Resignedly’ does add a little, I think. How often is it comfortable to have something stuffed between’s one’s breasts? “I’m not likely to” is awkward and round-about, but if she’s being sarcastic (which she is), that one is still up for grabs. “Lightly” is a rather pointless detail. And if she’s squeezing his hand, isn’t it pretty clear that she’s fond of him? Let’s try that again, this time with none of the adverbs and some stronger verbs.

AFTER
She sighed, fussing with the handkerchief she was tucking into the low bosom of her dress. Resignedly, she stuffed it into her corset, where it lay wedged between her breasts. “You think I’d forget something that important?

He handed her a thick cream colored ribbon from the vanity. “Wear this… Your bosom’s rather bare.”

“I thought that was the point.” She met his eyes in the mirror as he tied the ribbon around her throat.

“It is, but you don’t need to get carried away.”

“I never get carried away,” she said. They both laughed.

Joe led her down the inn’s stair well then, holding her hand to ensure she did not fall off her heels or trip over her dress. She squeezed his hand. It was a routine they’d performed more times than she remembered, perfectly dressed, perfectly prepared, vibrating with the thrill of the theft before them. They had every step down perfectly by now, though the other dancers, the music, and the location changed. Meet, seduce, find, steal. The details varied, but the dance remained the same.

NOTES
Better, yes? Especially if you imagine 10,000 words so thickly cluttered with adverbs. It’s icky.

I left resignedly. I like it. Sue me.

I left the perfectlies, too, because I’m too lazy to rewrite that entire section for a blog entry.

Still, you get the idea. This little section obviously has some other icky-writing issues, but just this is an improvement. If I trust you, the reader, to know that she’s being airy and sarcastic, which you would (or should) after making it this far with the characters, I can write much cleaner prose.

Three exercises to remember how annoying adverbs can be: 

  1. Tom Swifties: “You’ve got a nice butt, lady,” he said cheekily. (This one’s from Mr. King.)
  2. See how redundant they can be: “Let’s get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.
  3. Try adding adverbs to your own speech, she suggested pedantically. It’s quite annoying, she said mischievously. Don’t you want to slap me now? she asked, winking. I should probably stop, she admitted resignedly.

You get the idea. Happy adjective purging.

She added gleefully.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Attack of the Adverbs!

    1. Yay! I’m glad you enjoyed. The King book is a really excellent writing guide, better than most I’ve read — you should definitely check it out. I’ll admit that I’ve never read one of his novels, but even in non-fiction, the man knows how to grab a person’s attention!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s