Stephen King’s No-Adverbs Rule Is Going Out Of FashionStephen King’s dislike of adverbs is well-known, but are writers now ignoring his advice?

“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.” Stephen King

I often take a look at the bestselling titles on Amazon and have a quick preview read of the top 10 books. Call it market research.

While this habit of mine is often about discovering what genres are popular, or how a book hooks a reader in the first chapter, I have noticed in recent times that adverbs are being used far more often.

Yesterday, I checked the top five ebooks on Kindle and three of the titles used adverbs with reporting verbs with almost every line of dialogue.

For me, the three books were annoying and painful to read, but what do I know about popular writing and what readers want to read today?

Not to point a finger, but as the three titles were romance, I wonder if the return of the dreaded adverb is intentional and is becoming a writing tool that helps speed up a story. Or, are the writers oblivious to the old writing adage that adverbs are not your friend.

With so many new writers using self-publishing now, perhaps they are unaware of the fact that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Or should we now say, was paved?

What did Stephen King say about adverbs?

To remind writers of Stephen King’s advice here is a short extract from his book, On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft, which is to many writers the ultimate guide to good writing.

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. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:

“Put it down!” she shouted.

“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.

In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.

“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.

The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.

[…]

Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:”

“Put the gun down, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.

“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.

“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.

The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.

I have always been a firm believer in this last line of advice from King because it makes a writer work at showing and not telling.

But, what would I know? None of my books are in the top ten. But for some, adverbs are now in, and the road to hell is not paved with them anymore. Instead, the road to the bestseller list may well be literally, currently and incessantly dotted with damned adverbs.

“Oh no!” I moan, begrudgingly

grammarly

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22 thoughts on “Stephen King’s No-Adverbs Rule Is Going Out Of Fashion

  • July 31, 2016 at 5:46 pm
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    Those top books on Amazon are today’s “pulp fiction and paperback originals” that King refers to. I don’t think much else has changed.

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    • July 31, 2016 at 8:11 pm
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      Clearly, Karent, I’m not writing pulp fiction. Maybe I should earnestly try!

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  • July 31, 2016 at 6:29 pm
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    The key is to use vibrant, effective verbs, but it all really comes down to differences in styles. Still, you can’t really argue against King’s success.

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    • July 31, 2016 at 8:14 pm
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      I have been a believer in King’s advice, Will. I use said, unless there is very good reason not to do so. But I may have to bow to popular tastes and I might now revise my thinking, reluctantly!

      Reply
  • August 1, 2016 at 5:08 pm
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    In the same book, after King denigrates adverbs, he admits to using them. The popularity of his writing has nothing to do with whether or not it contains adverbs: if readers enjoy that genre, they’ll probably like King’s novels.

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    • August 3, 2016 at 5:11 pm
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      Adverbs serve a purpose, Christine, as King points out. It’s up to a writer to know when and how to use them, judiciously.

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    • August 3, 2016 at 5:09 pm
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      I agree, Noelle. It’s impossible to write without using adverbs. But when almost every dialogue tag uses an adverb, I have to give up reading any further. The two books I started to read, which gave me the motivation to write this post, were classic examples of habitual adverb overuse. I am not sure if this was intentional or accidental, though.

      Reply
  • August 5, 2016 at 11:54 am
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    People who believe they can write rely on adverbs as their imagination does not reach the heights of showing and they fail in describing a person’s emotion; instead they tell the reader how the character is acting, his emotion … need I say more.
    Lots of it on the Amazon slush pile.

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  • August 5, 2016 at 5:41 pm
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    I prefer wherever possible to describe a character’s expression or demeanor, but sometimes that gets a bit heavy as well, particularly when you’re trying to make a dialogue feel fast-paced.

    Used sparingly, a good adverb can work well. My general test is this: if it sounds awkward and forced when you read it out loud, it’s a problem. Find another way to convey the feeling, or leave it to the reader’s imagination.

    Context is everything.

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  • August 6, 2016 at 12:51 pm
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    Sometimes it feels right, and supportable, from the perspective of either a reader or a writer. The appropriateness seems to be based on the logic. If you can take it out and it loses little or nothing, then it’s superfluous and part and parcel of deathbyadverb-ism that SK described. If it loses something, and can be reworded (preferably) or left as is (without annoying or calling attention to itself), then so be it. As someone said, judiciously. It’s as big a decision as when to use italics, or all caps, or hyphens. To me it feels right (writerly?) when the adverb use tells me something extra or indiscernable about the doer, something persistent, not just something transient and thin about the verb itself. For example, I care more if something is being done instinctively, or judiciously, more than if something is being said wryly or sardonically (which I can probably figure out on my own by context). I’m OK knowing that she’s precariously standing on the ledge or bridge rail, not so much if she’s intently, delightedly sipping her coffee. Now if she’s doing it seductively and suggestively, that may be different–but probably still worth rewriting. Bottom line, if it seems superfluous, it probably is. It’s not like SK said “never use adverbs.”

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  • August 19, 2016 at 8:24 am
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    I don’t enjoy horror and I don’t read King. About five years ago, an editor tried to get me to take every single adverb out of a novella, based on King’s advice. Wondering how one could write without ever using an adverb, I went to the library and found a book of King’s short stories. Choosing one at random, I started reading. About six pages in, I noticed there were lots of adverbs. I went back to the beginning and wrote them all down. If memory serves, I found between 30 and 40 in those six pages, many repeating on the same page. I see King’s advice as a case of “do as I say, not as I do.”

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    • September 7, 2016 at 12:50 am
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      Your editor didn’t know what he was doing, and I’m saddened to see there are people out there charging for such terrible services. Anyone who honestly believes one shouldn’t use adverbs shouldn’t be writing for a living, or helping writers either.

      King never said not to use adverbs. Just like you, I have noticed he uses them often – and there’s nothing wrong with that. I use them often, and many people do.

      The thing with adverbs is knowing when to use them: Adverbs are often redundant, either repeating information already available or stating the obvious. In other cases, they’re downright unnecessary: In the phrase “Dianne truly felt frightened”, for example, truly is a truly redundant word unless Dianne has a knack for lying to herself. So when writing you just need to make sure that the adverbs you’re using are indeed necessary, otherwise they just clutter the story and add to the word counts many writers have to fight against on a daily basis.

      The one point where King states not to use adverbs – and where I take his advice by heart, because it’s true – is in dialogue tags. If you feel the need to let me know Aiden said something lovingly, threateningly, fearfully, or doubtingly, then you’re either a beginner or just a bad writer who tells me these things because they can’t show them by making characters act in such a way I can infer the intentions. If you feel the need to let me know somebody whispered softly or yelled loudly then you’re just being silly by repeating information. Same, if you tell me that Dana dashed hurriedly past the store you’re just repeating information since nobody ever dashes past something leisurely. If you’re running, you’re obviously in a hurry, after all.

      However, if you were to say something like…

      “I don’t know,” said Dana. Her words came out slowly, almost as if she had to force them out.

      Then I would have nothing against that use of the adverb. After all, if you removed it there’d be no way for the reader to know that particular quality on Dana’s speech at the time, and replacing it for a non-adverb description like “Her words came out in a slow fashion” would be just silly, since it would just clutter the writing with needlessly complicated constructions. Note the adverb on that previous sentence.

      The thing with adverbs isn’t that you shouldn’t use them. If anyone asks you to excise all adverbs from your book, run away and hire a new editor. The thing with adverbs is knowing when they’re necessary, when they’re redundant, and when they’re just bad writing. If you can master that, you’ll be able to write… competently.

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      • December 19, 2016 at 4:04 am
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        King uses adverbs a lot on dialogue tags in his book The Stand. In fact I was surprised to see how much he did because I read it after reading his memoir and thought. Hmmm, maybe it was a new rule of his. And if it’s one of his best books, perhaps he is going to change his rule back again. ;)

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  • August 31, 2016 at 7:23 am
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    Qualifiers are words—many of them adverbs—that modify the meaning of other words. I wasn’t aware of my problem until one of my colleagues read a piece I had written. She said, “You use a whole lot of qualifiers, and it makes your points weaker.”

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  • December 19, 2016 at 4:02 am
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    Stephen King uses the adverb in excess in The Stand. He even uses it in dialogue which he states clearly not to. So I wonder, because this is one of his best books yet he violates his own rule in 80% of the manuscript.

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  • December 23, 2016 at 9:34 pm
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    Overuse of adverbs can drag down a piece of writing, but I think some writers/editors have gotten a little too strict about King’s no adverb rule. There’s nothing wrong with using adverbs sparingly, and sometimes trying to remove them makes for awkward sentence constructions.

    Reply
  • December 28, 2016 at 6:06 pm
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    Readers of different genres expect different techniques. That’s not new. Romance readers love heavy doses of adverbs and dialogue tags. They want to be told how to feel so they can speed through each book. This has advantages but can feel to writers as if they are dumbing down their books.

    I’m with King that adverbs are easy to overuse. They feel like cheats. But I actually get requests for more of them from test readers. It’s hard to resist the temptation to give in.

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  • January 11, 2017 at 7:57 am
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    If a book is a bestseller, it’s a bestseller and the author is doing something right. If one wants to succeed in popular fiction, there is a lot to be said for emulating what works, not condemning it.

    Each to his own, of course, but instead of throwing sour grapes, I’d rather make myself some wine and sip to my own success :)

    Reply

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