In Defence of Adverbs

Horror writer Stephen King would have us get rid of adverbs. He hates them. He considers them timid writing. And to some extent, he’s right. Of course, he’s sold a gazillion books and has the perfect right to tell other people how to write. I’m not denying that. But I’m not sure he is totally correct on this score. You can’t eschew all adverbs in your writing.

So, for those who aren’t quite sure what an adverb is, let me explain.

An adverb is a category of word that modifies verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Many adverbs in English end in -ly. Many don’t. For example, adverbs ending in -ly include:

quickly, firmly, silently, appropriately, suddenly, sadly, wearily, etc.

Adverbs that don’t end in -ly are sneakier. They creep into our writing when we don’t even know they are adverbs.

afterward, already, almost, even, often , more, near, too, etc. Even malapropos.

If we follow Stephen King’s advice, we must dispense with the sneaky adverbs as well as the -ly ones. But looking at a list of sneaky ones, that would be difficult. They are just so damned useful.

The problem is exacerbated when you consider that adverbs aren’t always just one word. There are adverbial phrases and clauses, groups of words that together do the work of an adverb. For example, in the sentence, He ran as if his life depended on it, everything in bold is an adverbial phrase, telling the reader how he ran. And not a -ly to be seen anywhere,

Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. But it’s just an example.

So what do we do? Can we never use an adverb? Well, my opinion is we shouldn’t use them too much, but we shouldn’t avoid them altogether (altogether is an adverb). Stephen King declared the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Good for him.

Too much of anything is bad for you. Too much water, too much oxygen, too much red meat, too much running, too much work. Even too much Penfolds Grange 1956, although that last one is hard to believe. The point is, using adverbs without being judicious about it (that’s an adverbial clause by the way) does constitute what King refers to as fearful writing. A writer who fears, he claims, uses adverbs as a prop for their writing.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use them at all.

It all goes back to “show, don’t tell”. Your writing should show how something is done, without you having to tell us. Adding an adverb to tell us how someone says something, for instance, is a lazy way of doing it.

“Don’t you dare!” she shouted angrily. In this sentence, the word angrily tells us how she shouted. It’s a classic use of an adverb. But the context of the sentence should show us the speaker is angry without having her anger pointed out to us.

This is a fair enough criticism. But like all rules, there are exceptions. The judicious use of adverbs where they add something to the sentence should not, in my opinion, be avoided. Adverbs are words. There are lots of them, and they deserve a place in writing.

For example, take my own sentence above: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should probably be avoided for that reason anyway. Now, this contains an adverb: probably. Its job is to modify the compound verb should be avoided to show the degree of advisability of avoiding the use of a cliché. In that sense, it creates modality. If I was to avoid the use of the word, what are my options?

I could delete it altogether. The sentence then becomes Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché as well, and should be avoided for that reason anyway. But that allows no modality; my advice becomes a command to avoid the cliché and allows no exceptions. Probably (damn – there is it again!) a bit strong. I could use other modal words, or a modal phrase. The trouble is, modal words are adverbs and adverbial phrases. That’s what modality is.

Alternatively (another adverb! Heavens!) I could give a reason why it’s best to avoid clichés: Of course, the above example constitutes a cliché, and should be avoided for that reason anyway, since clichés are also an example of lazy writing. The trouble is, this still allows for no modality.

Adverbs have purpose. They are useful. They have a job to do. So avoiding them totally is not correct advice.

Don’t overuse them. Avoid them when modifying dialogue (but not always – even here they are useful). But feel free to plant a well-chosen, effective adverb within your writing when the need arises.

Them’s Writing Words

I write in the mornings. I have to: I work in the afternoons and evenings. But I think I’d write in the mornings anyway, given that my mind is then fresh and I have some kind of enthusiasm going for me.

Now I have book contracts out there, I have deadlines. And meeting the deadline is what turns things into a need to churn out a certain number of words a day. I often hear other writers say how many words they do per day: 2,000, 3,000 – even one who boasted she’d done 22,000 in one weekend. Some do 20,000 words a week. Some can churn out a novel in six weeks.

I set myself at 1,000 words a day for five days a week. After 1,000 words my brain starts to scream at me to stop the pain, although the most I did once was 4,000 in one sitting. My first book, ‘Days of Iron’, too me ten years to write. It’s still due for another edit. It could be better.

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Nicholas Monsarrat, author of ‘The Tribe That Lost Its Head’ and ‘The Master Mariner’, wrote 600 words a day. He did this after consuming two beers for breakfast. R. F. Delderfield wrote 23 pages a day. Georges Simenon, 20 pages. Jack London, between 1,000 and 1500 per day; Stephen King, 2,000. It took J. R. R. Tolkein eleven years to write ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which is a hefty 670,000 words. That works out to 245 words a day.

Every writer has their goal of words per day. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter, as long as the thing gets done.

Apart from words per day, writers have their own schedules for drafting, research, editing. I tend to research as I go. My current series, ‘The Jabberwocky Book’, ( needs a lot of research as it’s set in London in 1901. While I’ve been to London, I wasn’t there in 1901. A lot has changed. In the first novel of the series, ‘The Red King’, there is a scene set in a hansom cab – an action scene involving an escape from kidnappers. My heroine (Dorothy Gale from ‘The Wizard of Oz’) fights off an attacker while the cab barrels along the road late at night. Only thing was, some of the things she did to escape were not possible in a hansom cab. I had to research about the design of cabs in order to re-write the scene. The second book, ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’, is set in New York. I have to research carefully as to what buildings were in existence back then.

Research is vital. I read a book recently in which the hero reads ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce. Problem is, the book was set in the Nineteenth Century and ‘Ulysses’ was first published in 1922. Readers will pick up things like that. So, I research as I go. I’ll write something and then stop to do research when the story goes in a certain direction.

Editing is another thing writers have to plan for. I edit my books several times over, changing things a lot the first few times, not so much in the end. And I still find things I wish to change even after the book is out. Getting friends to read what you’ve written and giving advice is another essential thing, although sometimes they take too long.

So, writing is hard work, and the results are not guaranteed. But, of course, we continue to do it. Simply because we have to.

So I write in the mornings and work in the evenings. It’s a good life. I allow myself Sundays off, sometimes. Often I’m doing research or whatever, or trying out other ideas. Or writing a poem.

So, back to the grind. I haven’t done my 1,000 words yet. And I need to research a few things about cathedrals.

Russell Proctor

The Lost Art of the Typewriter


Remember them?
The other day I was teaching a class of year 7 kids and mentioned typewriters and I asked if any of them had ever used one. And a number of them didn’t even know what a typewriter was.

So I explained how there used to be these machines that you put the paper in and hit a key and a piece of metal would move and strike an inked ribbon and that would leave an impression on the paper, and if you wanted to have more than one copy you had to use this stuff called carbon paper. And it all sounded so complicated.

I love typewriters. I used to own three. I now have none. I feel sad about that.

They were noisy and slow (except the electric ones in the hands of an expert – but even they were noisy). The carbon paper left black smudges everywhere if you weren’t careful. The ribbon needed reversing after a while. You had to manually return the carriage at the end of each line.
But there were fun things about them as well. At the end of each line a bell went PING! to let you know were getting to the end and you had to push the carriage back. There was a solid feel to them. They were heavy and dependable. There were no font styles or sizes to worry about – there was only one of each. You didn’t have any cut/copy/paste options so you made sure what you wrote made sense the first time. They looked great sitting on the table.


If you made a mistake, back in the really old days you simply typed xxxxxxx over the mistake and re-typed it. Later there were special typewriter erasers that never quite worked. And then, of course, White Out, which came both as a liquid that you slopped on like a paste or as a specially impregnated strip of paper that you re-typed the mistake onto. I like that idea – you were forced to relive your mistake, which helped you understand that you never supposed to do it again. The electric typewriters had special erasing ribbons, which seemed like the most amazing technology at the time.

It was fun.

Word processors aren’t fun.
Word processors force you to think about all the things they can do. Fonts, captions, columns, dot points, spacing, even tracking changes and colour. With a typewriter, I could concentrate on what I said rather than how it looked.Composer Leroy Anderson wrote a short musical tribute, “The Typewriter”, which featured a typewriter as part of the orchestra. He had the right idea. Typewriters were amazing machines. The world has lost something great: a writing machine that was also a percussion instrument. How cool is that?

I learned to type the hard way. I used to work for the Queensland Department of Justice. I was employed in a Magistrates Court as a Depositions Clerk, which meant one of my duties was typing testimony in court as it happened. I didn’t use a short hand typewriter, just the ordinary sort, so I had to learn to type very quickly, and very quickly. The only special thing about the machine itself was that it was “noiseless”. It had a special construction that did, indeed, reduce the usual intrusive clatter of the keys to a sort of gentle burr. The downside of its construction was that it frequently jammed.
The lawyers usually did me the courtesy of slowing down their speed of delivery, especially while I madly scrambled trying to sort the keys out, but the witnesses didn’t always get the idea. I learned to type VERY quickly. Eventually, tape recorders were installed and my job became a lot easier, but the adrenalin produced by trying to furiously type what people were saying as they said it will never be forgotten.


They have probably gone forever, but typewriters were indeed one of the great inventions of the world. Mark Twain, I believe, was the first writer to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher. That must have one been one of the turning pints of history.

I wish I still had one to take out occasionally and raise a noise on. The clack clack clackity clack of the old typewriter (an even the electric ones could be loud) is one of the defining noises of the twentieth century.

Kids these days just don’t get it.