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November 20, 2017
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she takes a look at the problem with adverbs.

Dear Editor: What’s your opinion on adverbs?
—Adelaide K.

“The adverb is not your friend,” says Stephen King in On Writing. In fact, he says, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but in general I agree with him: adverbs interrupt the flow of the narrative. Think about “he clenched his fist tightly”—how else can one clench one’s fist? Or “the siren blared loudly”—could it blare softly? These are good examples of redundant adverbs weakening the verbs that they modify.

“She walked down the street quickly” is not a terrible sentence, but wouldn’t “she hurried down the street” work just as well? One way to cut back on adverbs is to use stronger verbs. Let hurried do the work.

A particular peeve of mine—and one of King’s as well—is using an adverb in dialogue attribution. Sentences like “ ‘Let’s have a party,’ said Patsy, happily” are just plain annoying and slow the pace of a story. Of course Patsy is happy if she is suggesting giving a party. A scene should make its characters’ feelings obvious, and the adverbs used to describe what they are saying to each other are unnecessary, even infuriating sometimes.

“Good writing is lean and confident,” says William Zinsser in On Writing Well. This is always true, in my opinion. But how can a writer achieve that? For starters, lose the adverbs.

If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.