Avoid adverbs


Strong verbs do the job so much better.

Stephen King once said, ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.’ A little extreme perhaps, but it’s often the case that when we admire a vivid piece of writing, we find the verbs are so strong they don’t need qualifying. Take this section from John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, for example:

The great knife swung and crunched hollowly. It bit through neck and deep into chest, and Kino was a terrible machine now. He grasped the rifle even as he wrenched free his knife. His strength and his movement and his speed were a machine. He whirled and struck the head of the seated man like a melon. The third man scrabbled away like a crab, slipped into the pool, and then he began to climb frantically, to climb up the cliff where the water pencilled down. His hands and feet threshed in the tangle of the wild grapevine, and he whimpered and gibbered as he tried to get up…

Okay, so there are a couple of adverbs – ‘hollowly’ and ‘frantically’ but in the main it’s the verbs doing the job. And what powerful verbs they are. I love the onomatopoeia of ‘crunched’ and ‘grasped’; the personification of ‘bit’; the wonderful metaphor ‘pencilled’… The passage would be so much less effective had Steinbeck written, ‘hit hard’ instead of ‘struck’ or ‘held firmly’ instead of ‘grasped.’ Adverbs, used in anything other than moderation, can dilute and weaken a piece of writing; carefully chosen verbs almost always strengthen it.

It’s an interesting exercise to hunt down adverbs in our own writing (typing in the suffix ‘ly’ on a search usually reveals them). That will also show their frequency on the page, so if we do use adverbs, at least we can make sure they are spaced out. But generally, replacing them with stronger verbs works best. And our writing becomes much more powerful as a result.