On Writing: How to Break the “Eliminate Adverbs Rule” & Get Away With It!

One of my favorite quotes from Stephen King is on page 125 of his book, On Writing: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” (King, Stephen. On Writing by Stephen King. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Shribner, 2000.) I teach this same principle of eliminating adverbs in my workshops. My reasoning: the verb should be the strongest word in your sentence. If you have to modify it with an adverb, you need to choose a stronger verb. Granted, I litter my blogs with adverbs, but that’s because 1) I’m lazy and 2) days only have 24 hours. When God gives me 36 hours in a day, I’ll adjust my blogs. (My books are another matter.)

Why publishers, agents, and editors have this rule:

  • As stated above, you can usually find a better verb.
  • Overuse of adverbs leads to weak writing. (Anything we lean on as a crutch leads to weak writing.)

J. K. Rowling breaks this rule often, as many people point out to me during my workshops. Here are a few examples from just the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

  • “…Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily…”
  • “He eyed them angrily.”
  • The nation’s owls have been behaving very unusually today.”
  • “…his heart sinking horribly.”
  • “Professor McGonagall sniffed angrily.”
  • “…she said impatiently.”

Why breaking this rule worked:

  • Because story trumps adverb usage. If you can write a story as good as Harry Potter, by all means dump in as many adverbs as you want.
  • Remember the Axiom to All Writing Rules discussed in my post about eliminating passive voice: Readers don’t know the rules. Readers don’t know that agents stand in front of us at writing conferences and complain about adverbs. Readers don’t know that all of our “how to write” literature tells us not to use adverbs. Readers want a good story. Period. End of statement. Give them what they want.

What this tells us about the craft of writing: Concentrate on writing a captivating story first. (More on how to do that in later blogs.) Eliminate your adverbs later.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post about shifting POV (point of view).

This post is part of a mini-series of posts. Click below to read previous posts in the series.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, which is being adapted into a graphic novel series by Wandering Sage Publications, Inc. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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