I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one in 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.

(King)

Adverbs. They’re the words we use to explain things when we don’t want to describe the actions a character commits. He walked briskly, quickly, happily, nonchalantly. — “What?” He asked quizzically, questioningly, confusedly, malevolently.

The real doom of adverbs is that they almost always weaken the phrase. Powerful sentences make it clear how a character is feeling without having to resort to blanket words. When a character says something questioningly- we know they’re asking a question- so just put a question mark after what they said and you won’t need to add an adverb. But that case is too obvious.

He waved the stick menacingly to ward off the Mulligens

He beat the air with the stick to warn the Mulligens.

In the first example, the reader is forced to leave the page and think for a moment- how does one wave a stick menacingly? Does he bend at the knees and swirl it around? Does he hop on one foot and push the stick out front of him? The answer is yes, to all of them, until the writer says something clear.

The second sentence, while not ultimately the best, gives a clear action. Beating the air is something we all know how to do- and it’s easier to imagine. Also, the sentence is, once again, shorter.

Dialogue is the only time adverbs ending in -ly can be successful. And even then- they sound terrible. Best stick to Stephen King’s advice.

“I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it…”

(King)

You’ll often find adverbs in munchie titles among the romance novels of a bookstore. They’re successful because good dialogue and good descriptions of anything besides sex in those novels aren’t necessary. Those writers know this, and they know what sells. I promise you: Any romance novel written well isn’t in the romance section of the store. Think of the Outlander series; just because it’s sexy does not mean it has to be written by a 16 year old on Wattpad.

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9 thoughts on “Make Your Sentences Powerful- Misunderstood Writing Advice

  1. Whoa. Now I am going to be a little scared to write for fear of breaking the mighty rules!!! I am really, really bad at using passive voice. And I’m kind of prone to weedy adverbs too. That’s one thing about Japanese – sentence structure is very prescribed (from what I remember). Subject, time, place, object, verb.
    Thank you for writing this article, I think that considering these things will improve my writing.

    1. Write in spite of the rules! It’s good for ya. Poetry is about making the rules work for you anyway. So go get ’em!
      Yeah Japanese can be that way- I remember having trouble writing sentences because they would be too direct, and in my efforts to correct this, not direct enough!

      Thank you as always for reading- I’m glad to be of any help!

  2. This memorable, insightful and quite authoritative article was very much appreciated, like a long walk on a sunny and pleasant autumn afternoon.

    Translation: Good. Me like.

    1. Hahaha

      I’m glad you liked it and said so in such poetic terms! I hope I can keep making content that lives up to this level of expectation for readers like you!

  3. I live by the rule that adverbs are generally redundant or useless if you use the correct verb. I like the rule of using metaphors instead of similes. It drives the action. I might add a rule: In general, if you use more than one preposition consecutively, one of them is redundant and not needed, e.g. “Went out on a limb,” “He came from up under the box,” “He ran out of the room”. These could be said simpler, e.g. “He ran from the room.”

    1. Absolutely right! I would say that a writer needs to think about these things before putting the pen to paper- sometimes those metaphors aren’t the best, other times they make it worth reading.

      It’s subjective, but always something to consider.
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for reading! Keep writing, my friend.

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