“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”, says the great American writer, Stephen King. I agree. Adverbs are so seductive. They are the sirens of the writer’s world, singing an irresistible melody to lure us onto the rocks and shipwreck our writing. Or, more simply, adverbs undermine the authority of your writing.
Have you spotted the adverb so far in this blog? The easiest way to spot an adverb is to look for the -ly ending (it doesn’t capture every adverb but it’s enough). Can you find the culprit in my first paragraph now? So what is it doing in my writing? Just what adverbs always do. An adverb is a part of speech that provides a greater description of a verb, adjective, another adverb, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence.
The problem is not adverbs per se, it is that they proliferate. Here’s King’s quote in full.
“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.”
And therein lies the problem. We use adverbs with abandon. Here’s an example: “We really love to use adverbs actually. We simply thrill to these lovely little words and the way they simply and clearly add that extra excitement and a twist to our words.”
But I have found that almost all can go. Let me write that sentence again: “We love to use adverbs. We thrill to these little words and the way they add that excitement and a twist to our words.”
Adverbs make us breathless and excited–not I would argue, the voice of authority.
How can you rid your writing of adverbs? Not in the first draft. In the first draft, fire away. Get out the adverb machine gun and spray it around. But in your second (and final) draft, search and destroy. I use the search function of Google Docs or Word and enter ly[space]. That picks most of them up. Then I am ruthless. I leave only the adverbs that, when removed, make the sentence incomprehensible.
Compare a paragraph that you have de-adverbed. Can you see the authority shine through once the adverbs have been deleted? Use them sparingly.
Want more? You might like: Not everyone should write a business book. Should you?
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