Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Art of Pruning

 In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Stephen King writes, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and he is not alone in his belief.  100 years earlier Mark Twain said, “If you see an adverb, kill it.”  William Zinsser argued that “most adverbs are unnecessary” because they “clutter” and “annoy”.  For King, Twain and Zinnser, adverbs – which are modifiers which add information about when, where, why, and how something happens – are superfluous. 

As such, they would encourage writers to prune adverbs.  Why?  Adverbs can stall the pace of a story.  Adverbs can thwart “showing, not telling.”  Writing improves when writers are thoughtful about word choices; and incorrect adverb usage damages writing.

How does a writer reduce adverbs?  You decide what you want to say, and you choose precise language to say it.  For example, what you might want to say is “He leisurely walked….”  What you might write is “He strolled or ambled or meandered ….” The verb you choose will convey the “how” without use of an adverb.

 Not all writers dislike adverbs, though.  A contemporary of Mark Twain, Henry James said, “I'm glad you like adverbs — I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect.”  Modern playwright and journalist, Lily Rothman reminds us that Zinsser said “most” and not “all” adverbs are unnecessary.  As she explains, “A sigh is just a sigh, but anyone who has ever been in love knows how important it is to distinguish between when she sighs happily and when she sighs otherwise.”

Ben Blatt, author of I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back, analyzed the adverb, adjective, and repeated sentence usage of three contemporary best-selling authors:  J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series), Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games series), and Stephanie Meyer (Twilight series).  All three writers are guilty of “ly” adverb use, repetitive sentences, and adjectives aplenty.  His conclusion?  Readers will read what they enjoy.

So, what does this writer believe?  Adverbs can be effective if correctly utilized, and they are as much a tool of writing as nouns and verbs.  What is important is to write your stories well using all eight parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections.               
Paula Castner is a mother of three and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer, writing and baking workshop facilitator, and drama director. She receives emails at



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