I know what you’re thinking: How can there be such things as good adverbs? After all, great writers like Stephen King revile them. His opinion on adverbs drips with venom, and is enough to shake most writers’ confidence in using them. What the heck happened to him as a child that caused him to get adverbial PTSD? Did his parents pay attention to him sparingly? Was he unwittingly frightened by an adverb buzzing drowsily about his head at summer camp? Did an early editor comment acidly about his adverb habit? Most of you probably know that in his bestselling book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he famously said:
‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
Plenty of writers and pundits love this quote and use it as proof positive that adverbs are a defunct and useless part of our language. What they’re not telling you is the quote goes on. Yes, Grasshopper, there is another part to the story, and it goes like this:
“To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”
Okay, okay — he does advise that you root them all out of your manuscript like you’re possessed of a giant can of RoundUp for words. Thing is, everyone misses that tiny little place where he says, “If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique.” What if we could train ourselves to stop at one (or two) and let them ornament our prose like the literary embellishments they’re meant to be? That, Grasshopper, is the secret I’m going to let you in on right now.
Alright, most agree you need to use restraint with these little buggers lest they overrun your picture-perfect prose and turn it into a pulp fiction nightmare. Let’s explore ways to keep both your creative spirit and Stephen King happy.
Use Adverbs with A Strong Verb
It’s true, adverbs can dilute language to anemic proportions. But adverbs can also take a strong verb and kick it up a notch, supercharging your prose in the process. Take this example: If “John smiled widely” is bad, and “John grinned” is good, then “John grinned impishly” is even better. After all, “impishly” gives us an additional bit of information. John’s not grinning like every other grinner grins — he’s grinning like John, a mischievous imp of a boy. So, what you should do as a writer is always be sure you have the strongest verbs possible in place before adding your good adverbs for extra detail.
Use Adverbs for Contrast
Another great way to use “good adverbs” is to let them stand as a juxtoposition to the verb. Use your adverb for contrast instead of as a modifier, like describing your OCD protagonist who is unaware of his problem as “inadvertently anal”. This can help convey the feeling of a character in conflict with his own attributes, much more so than simply calling him “anal” would.
Writers paint with words. Why would an artist ever, ever limit their palette? Adverbs are just another luscious pot of ink you can use to color your writing. Make it flame furiously with the dark red slap of anger; whisper breathlessly in love-blushed shades of pinkish-gold, or let the pale tears of a lingering depression drip silently. Experimentation is the key to every astounding work of brilliance we humans have produced, so don’t be afraid to use every part of language to perfect your craft.
After all, it’s your craft.
See you on the next page!