Posted in Writing

Why You Need to Cut Your Adverbs


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox is this: The adverb is not your friend.

Oh, the dreaded adverb. Every time I write an adverb, especially in the first draft of a long manuscript, I wince, and I want to cut it, I desperately want to remove it then and there, but my practice in writing a first draft is to always keep going, don’t slow down to edit, always fixate on the next paragraph, the next sentence.

And then there’s the second draft, when I also catch hundreds of adverbs and don’t delete enough of them. It’s usually not until the seventh draft, the ninth draft, when I’m doing more line level editing that I will take a few days and do the best I can to cut out as many as I can find.

Because the truth of the matter is that adverbs weaken your writing. They slow the pacing of a sentence. They usually tell the reader something, rather than show it. They usually read awkwardly (see what I mean?). I would suggest that 95% of the time, at least, you can always find a better way to describe an action than with an adverb.

Which ones fire off my fingertips the most? Slowly and quickly. I can’t tell you how many times in a first draft of a novel, a short story, anything, I use the words slowly and quickly. They’re the easy go-to adverbs. I want the reader to understand my protagonist is moving especially slow through the woods in this new intense horror scene, and so I write “He walks slowly down the path.” There. Done, right? I’m a literary genius. The Pulitzer is mine!

The problem is that this sentence sucks. There’s nothing original about it. Nothing interesting or flashy. It’s a sentence that equals death in the imagination of the reader.

The main character is walking at a slow pace down the path. Okay, what about, “He walks with trepidation down the path.” Better, right? Still not great, because, again, you’re telling the reader something here. It’s always better, whenever possible, to show the reader. “He tiptoes down the path, sweat dripping off his cheeks and chin, his arms trembling even though the air is warm and the sun is bright.” Again, not the best sentence in the history of the world, but do you see how that’s better than “He walks slowly down the path”? It’s monumentally better.

Now, I’m not advising you eliminate every single use of “slowly” or “quickly” in your manuscript. If you write novels like I do, you’re going to have the occasional sentence that it works fine for, and you move on. But I would suggest that for every ten uses of “slowly” or “quickly,” eliminate nine of them, more of you can. These words are not your friends. Don’t treat them as such.

Of course there are thousands and thousands of different kinds of adverbs. He shut the door firmly. She dropped to the ground restfully. They argued their points maniacally. If you want to win the Worst Writer of the Year award, you can go ahead and put an adverb in pretty much any sentence imaginable! Please don’t do this. It’s so easy to be rejected as a writer. So easy for others to tell you no. You want to do everything in your power to get them to say yes, and too many adverbs will bring your writing down.

Again, you don’t have to cut out all of them. But if you want to make your latest manuscript soar, I would advise you spend a few days and look for those sometimes hard-to-find and most definitely deletable -ly adverbs in your writing.

This practice will make you a better writer, I guarantee it.

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