The Adverb Is Not Your Friend

The adverb is not your friend. I have shared that advice with countless writers in my capacity as a publisher. Most of them understand what I am telling them. Others ignore me. Regardless, the advice is sound.

In his book, On Writing, King rails against the adverb:

The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … 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.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant? via Brain Pickings

I often tell writers that each sentence needs to reveal either plot or character. King describes the same thing as context. Believe me, there is a world of difference between a man who closes the door firmly and a man who slams the door shut. The former is a bore, but, more importantly, the former provides little character nor plot information. Slammed also involves one of our senses. I suspect that while most of can agree on whether or not someone slammed a door shut, we cannot agree on closing it firmly. My idea of firm differs from someone else’s idea.

According to King, this reliance on adverbs is borne out of fear, a kind of fear where we do not trust ourselves. Natalie Goldberg describes it as going for the jugular. Go for the killer instinct. Your readers and your writing will thank you.