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.