The road to hell is paved with adverbs

It was Stephen King who said the road to hell is paved with adverbs. I think he also said to use adverbs sparingly (yes it is a joke). It should come as no surprise that the only writing quotes I can really remember come from King, since his On Writing is the only writing book that I’ve read from beginning to end.

I spent quite a bit of time looking for the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that went something like “don’t use adverbs so often because it makes you look like an amateur jackass, loser.” But I couldn’t find it.

My abject hatred of adverbs started in college. I was a doofy reporter for the Spotlight section when one of the Chief Copy Editors chucked the AP Stylebook at my head and threatened to beat me to a bloody pulp if I used one more adverb in any of my stories ever. You get hit in the head with the AP Stylebook enough and the lesson begins to stick.

It took me many, many years of working in marketing where it’s all easily, breezily, beautifully, and more! to get over my adverb disdain. I was doing really good for awhile there. I could adverb just about any adjective with the best copywriters. But then I started taking fiction writing classes at The Loft and was flooded with adverbs. In fact, I became that person who would circle or underline every adverb in a story. Ask Peabo, she’s been witness to the obsession.

So imagine my horror and dismay when upon reading Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl when I find something like twenty-four adverbs in the first four pages, five of them in a single sentence. Here is but a small example of what I’m talking about (emphasis mine):

As such, the program was known as the Owl Eagles for all of the 1964-1965 school year. Contrary to community hopes, this change dramatically increased the degree to which its sports teams were mocked by opposing schools. During the especially oppressive summer of 1969, they decided to change the nickname again, this time becoming the Owl High Screaming Satans. (New uniforms were immediately purchased.) Two games into the ’69 football season, the local Lutheran and Methodist churches jointly petitioned the school board, arguing that the nickname “Satan” glorified the occult and needed to be changed on religious grounds; oddly (or perhaps predictably), the local Catholic church responded by aggressively supporting the new moniker, thereby initiating a bitter feud among the various congregations.

It made me angry. Not just because Klosterman is being lazy and relying on adverbs to get his point across but because some editor (or friend, or reader) didn’t call him on his bullshit. And if someone did call him on it, I’m just as angry that he didn’t fix it.

We all do crappy stuff in our drafts, but we rely on our peers and fellow writers to call us on it. I can totally understand about staying true to your story but distracting adverbs don’t help your story at all, in fact it ruins it. As a reader I was pulled out of the world Klosterman was creating because of the excessive use of adverbs, and any time a writer disturbs that fictional dream he/she fails.

Damn. It’s so disappointing.

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  1. UH 18.Sep.08 at 8:09 am


  2. Heather 18.Sep.08 at 11:36 am

    I liked Klosterman’s writing. Well I liked Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs anway. My problem is that the writing style becomes so predictable, that Chucky boy ceases to be amusing. BUT remember: if Mr. Klosterman was in the third grade, his writing would be highly praised.

  3. Barrett Chase 18.Sep.08 at 4:02 pm

    I’ve never read any of Klosterman’s fiction, but saw him read a couple of days ago in NYC. I couldn’t help but edit in my head as he read along. His sentence structure came off as repetitious, and overall it seemed like I wasn’t hearing a story as much as having Klosterman explain a story to me. In other words, it seemed like Klosterman himself was explaining a story that he had in his head, rather than allowing you to experience the story yourself.

    I kind of like Chuck Klosterman, but if I didn’t, I would say that there is a huge gap between the reader and the characters, and that Klosterman makes you pay a toll to his ego before bridging the gap for you in a half-assed sort of way.

  4. Jodi 18.Sep.08 at 7:41 pm

    Klosterman, as far as I know, has only released one piece of fiction, an unreadable short story that appears at the end of Klosterman IV.

    His sentence structure is repetitious! In fact in dialog, all his characters tend to repeat themselves. It’s a bit on the annoying side.

    You are so right on the tell vs. show. That’s what this is. It feels really rookie fiction-y to me — the kind of stuff that I workshop in class all the time.

  5. Doug 20.Sep.08 at 1:14 am

    I’ve read Klosterman in spite of his sentence structure. I do enjoy the ideas he has, but that’s much easier to handle with non-fiction (where it has struck me that the only thing his editor does is make sure there’s no egregious typos–must be a cushy paycheck).

    I wasn’t planning on taking on this attempt at fiction anyway, but now I’m definitely staying away.

    Crap. I threw an adverb in there. It’s infectious.

  6. Beverly 29.Sep.08 at 2:46 pm

    I find myself using “apparently” and “really” on my blog lately, but I try to tell myself I’m being ironic so it’s OK.

  7. Jodi 29.Sep.08 at 2:48 pm

    Oh, I am guilty of that in my blogging too. A big fan of clearly and obviously, here. I should practice what I preach. However, in my fiction I rarely (heh) use adverbs.

  8. Jeff V 31.Oct.08 at 1:04 pm

    Using adverbs the way some unsuccessful writer in a fiction class told you to is a great way to write like every other writer.

    I prefer to write beautifully.

  9. Jodi 31.Oct.08 at 1:08 pm

    Well, that’s good for you. Way to make disparaging assumptions about my writing based on what I said about adverbs.

  10. F. Scott Fitzgerald 30.Dec.08 at 4:41 pm

    I agree that Klosterman went overboard in the passage you provided, but there’s nothing wrong with the routine use of adverbs. Need proof? Pick up a copy of The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, or anything else by Fitzgerald.

    When it comes to something as creative and expressive as fiction writing, sweeping generalizations shouldn’t be applied as doctrine. Adverbs can make or break a composition, but there’s no rule as to how many or when they should be used.

  11. Kef Schecter 27.Dec.09 at 3:02 am

    I know this is an old post, but it’s the first google hit for “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”, so I’ll respond anyway.

    Although I agree with King’s advice in general, I wouldn’t take it to extremes. I think adverbs are problematic for two reasons:
    1. They often tell instead of show.
    2. They often violate “omit needless words”.

    Take “often” in the above two sentences. That’s an adverb, but it would be hard to excise. I can’t omit it, because then the statements would be wrong: sometimes they don’t violate either rule. (“Sometimes” is another adverb!) Any paraphrase of the word “often” would make the text verbose to avoid an adverb, which is silly. “Vigorous writing is concise,” says Strunk & White.

    I could, of course, rephrase with something like “They might tell instead of show”, but then I am still accomplishing nothing but replacing the adverb with something else. It doesn’t improve the text.

    Adverbs are not problems. Adverbs are symptoms. They say, “Hey, you might want to take a closer look to make sure this is the best way to say this.” They are often right. But if you think a passage without an adverb is better because it avoids an adverb, you are fooling yourself: either you are ignoring the underlying problem, or there is no underlying problem.

    Compare “he smiled menacingly” and “he had a menacing smile”. The second one may not leap out at you as much as the first since it doesn’t have an adverb, but it says the same thing. If the first is a problem, so is the second. The adverb only leaps out at you because you’ve trained yourself to hate adverbs. That’s not to say that “he smiled menacingly” can’t be improved upon, but rather the problem isn’t the adverb.

    In the Klosterman passage — which I agree does overuse adverbs, but I don’t think it’s horrible for it — you highlighted the word “jointly”. It is, after all, an adverb. But I think it is the least egregious adverb in the text, because it adds information, not just color: it means the two churches combined their efforts, rather than petitioning separately. (“Separately” is another unavoidable adverb.) You could argue that, say, “joined forces to petition” is better than “jointly petitioned”, but in some contexts this might sound overdramatic (but perhaps not in the Klosterman example).

    I also believe that character dialogue can get away with using more adverbs, because, well, people use them. It makes dialogue sound more natural, and I think sometimes the weakening effect of the adverbs is desirable. A character saying “I really don’t think that’s a good idea” sounds less blunt than if he said “I don’t think that’s a good idea”, even though he’s emphasizing how good it isn’t.

    By the way, I think adverbs are at their best when they actually contradict the word or phrase they modify. My favorite example is from Douglas Adams: “Here the man in blue crimplene accosted us once more but we patiently explained to him that he could fuck off.” The sentence would lose so much if you removed the word “patiently”.

    – Kef

  12. Mike 08.Jan.10 at 2:37 pm

    …said the blogger.

  13. Jodi 08.Jan.10 at 3:18 pm

    Mike are you implying my opinion is invalid because I’m a blogger?


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