Saturday Study: King on adverbs

It’s been a while since I’ve dove back into the long list of quotes I distilled from Stephen King’ On Writing. And given the way my life has been going I thought I could use a reminder of just how complicated even the simplest of subjects can be. It’s never black and white. And on that note…

Everyone and their brother can quote King “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” It’s practically tattooed on every author’s tongue so it can slip off in casual conversation. LOL

So what is an adverb? Google says an adverb is a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc.

That’s doesn’t sound so bad to me and certainly not an appropriate paving material for a road, whatever the destination. But King insists “While to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” (128)

So he’s against complicated dialogue tags. Ok, I can see that. Makes total sense.

But King admits he uses adverbs himself.

When I do it, 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. I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. (126)

Ahh. So if I am concerned the reader might not understand me, I should look for a way to rewrite that doesn’t use an adverb? But here’s where it starts to get complicated.

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with. (128)

Could I let go of the fear that someone might criticize my adverb use? If good writing is letting go of fear and affectation, then I – you should write what feels appropriate to the novel you are creating. The best arguement for writing what works for you is this…

Even at it’s best writing almost always falls short of full meaning. Given that, why in God’s name would you want to make things worse by choosing a word which is only cousin to the one you really wanted to use? (118)

Write what works, road to hell be damned.

What do you think about adverbs?


9 thoughts on “Saturday Study: King on adverbs

  1. Precisely, adventurously, briefly, and delightfully stated. Not just well done, but fastidiously, acidly, fairly, and correctly adapted. Not simply well done; very well done. Or, as Twain may have rendered it, damn well stated. Sometimes adverbs are stupendously useful. On other delightfully economic reviews, they are at least expendable and often useless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ahhh Stephen King. I was always a writer long before I read Salem’s Lot and The Shining, but Mr. King made me want to be…Stephen King. But I learned long ago that, while I may have learned a lot from his style, I was not about to be Stephen King. I was going to be Tim Keen and hope maybe the readers would confuse the two of us and start buying my books.

    I am being a little funny or trying anyway. My point is that Stephen King’s style works well for Stephen King. All the rest have to find their own style, get comfortable with it, and make it work for them.


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  3. One of my writing teachers in the past told our class that the best solution to using an adverb is choosing a better verb.

    For example, instead of:

    “He walked proudly.”
    “He swaggered.” “He strutted.” OR “He paraded.”

    This was because each verb carried with it a different connotation that could communicate with the reader better than the adverb. I thought his advice was good and tried it for a little while, but then I figured there was so much to juggle when writing a story. Why add complications to it by trying to avoid adverbs?

    This might all change when I hit final revision, but for now adverbs are very welcome in my writing world. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I tend to use them in the first draft because whenever I take too long writing something out for the first time I get stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of starting over and revising and retconning. When I go back through to edit for a second draft, then I’ll try to pick better verbs rather than using adverbs.

    But I tend to stick with “said,” and I think that’s another thing I picked up from Stephen King. I’ll also use the basic variations like “whispered” or “groaned”, but I avoid stuff like “grated out” or… I don’t know, “bubbled.” Thats mostly where I use adverbs instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I definitely prefer reading fiction with excessively many adverbs; consequently, none of the diatribes of King and his followers will ever be able to deter me from writing adverbs shamelessly and deliberately.

    Liked by 1 person

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