Stephen King’s No-Adverbs Rule

Posted by March 22nd, 2013

How adverbs lead to affectation and weakness in your writing.

stephen_king_sm“…while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” –Stephen King

Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the most popular books on the craft of writing. And with good reason: it is chock full of practical writing advice and curious anecdotes about King’s own path to publication.

Adverbs are a sign of a timid writer

What amused me when I read it recently was the author’s utter disdain for adverbs. He starts with a grammar refresher:

Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

Here it gets even better:

Someone out there is accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. 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, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your loan is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they are, but by then it’s–GASP!!—too late.

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Adverbs in dialogue attribution ends in affectation

There is one case in which King just hates adverbs: dialogue attribution. He invites us to compare the following sets of examples:

“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

In these sentences, shoutedpleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.

But even if you’re not guilty of populating your dialogue with adverbs, he warns us against another common misdemeanor:

Some writers try to avoid the no-adverb rule by shooting up the attribution verb full of steroids. 

Which leads to atrocities such as these:

“Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.

King concludes:

Good writing is about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with. 

The bestselling author is a proponent of William Strunk and E.B. White’s simplicity of expression school. If you’ve read their slim volume The Elements of Style, you probably have the incantation “Omit needless words” branded into your memory.

Flowery language, or overwriting, is a challenge for newbie and seasoned writers alike. Spurred on by fear, they try to dazzle readers with verbal fireworks, and might forget that what’s more important that using a “pretty” word is using the “right” one.

A Confession:

I must admit I’ve been guilty of overwriting.

My sin is called qualifiers.

Qualifiers are words—many of them adverbs—that modify the meaning of other words. I wasn’t aware of my problem until one of my colleagues read a piece I had written. She said, “You use a whole lot of qualifiers, and it makes your points weaker.”

Ouch! I reread it and realized that she was right: my writing was peppered with “rather,” “somewhat,” and “quite,” “completely,” “actually,” and “seemingly.” They made my ideas sound tentative, as if I didn’t believe in my own assertions.

These words are an old habit from my academic days, where this kind of “hedging” language is widely accepted. Outside of academia, qualifiers lead to weak, lackluster, and hesitant writing. And I’m determined to weed them out.

What about you? Do you have a writing tic or thorn? What tendencies are you trying to exterminate? 

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