Adverbs: Friend, Foe, Switzerland?




Photo credit: Richard Edwards at

Stephen King: The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Mark Twain: I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me.

Graham Greene: There is almost a complete absence of the beastly adverb–far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.
Theodore Roethke: In order to write good stuff you have to hate adverbs.
Wow. Why do some great writers get their knickers in such a twist over adverbs? Writing should involve the use of the strongest, most vivid verbs. Adverbs enable lazy writing. Instead of “He spoke loudly,” try “He bellowed,” “He yelled,” “He shouted,” “He blared.” Each one has a slightly different meaning, and each one is more specific than “He spoke loudly.”

Another place writers often misuse adverbs is in tags. “I am afraid,” she said, fearfully. Don’t tell us (with the adverb) what the dialogue has already shown us. She’s afraid. Don’t gild the lily.

I’m not opposed to the occasional adverb. I am opposed to lazy writing and telling. The overuse of adverbs enables both of those bad habits.


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face.headache.doubt. by Patrick_Denker at

photo by Patrick Denker at

Self-doubt will kill you as a creative soul. Does that sound like drama-llama overreaching to you? Well, it isn’t. I suspect all writers occasionally lie awake in the dark of night thinking, “I am a fraud. Someone is going to discover how unclever and uncreative and unwriterly I am and boot me out of The Cool Kids Writers Club.”

Don’t believe me? How about Tennessee Williams, one of the finest writers produced in the United States in the last century. “I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.”

Or maybe Stephen King, permanent denizen of the bestselling lists. “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.
There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.”

And self-doubt will sap your energy, make you second-guess your every decision and choice, paralyze your very mind.

What to do? Perhaps the best thing is to *drum roll, please* keep writing, you silly beast! Keep.Writing. If what you write today is lousy, well, it’s lousy. I have a file in my computer called “Crap I Don’t Want to Crap Out.” It’s my “boy, this stuff is lousy, but there might be a sentence or a phrase or something worth salvaging in here, so I’ll save it” file. When I can’t write decent stuff, I write anyway and stash it all there.

Give yourself permission to write badly, if you have to. Just write. Write anything. Anything at all. To quote the amazing Maya Angelou, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks, ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

If it’s good enough for Ms. Angelou, it’s good enough for me. And you.

Photo credit: Patrick_Denker at