Adverbs = Bad Writing?

A seemingly innocuous Steven King quote provokes online controversy.

Ever since I joined Twitter over a decade ago, I schedule two writing quote tweets per night: one on writing, one on screenwriting. They are culled from the hundreds of quotes I have aggregated over the years which you can see here and here.

The other night, I tweeted this:

That sparked quite a few responses such as:

The reactions provoked me to do some research. I discovered:

Skimming through some of these articles, the main point seems to be this: Why use an adverb, when you can use a stronger verb?

Instead of runs quickly, why not sprints, races, charges, bolts?

Instead of looks longingly, why not gazes, gapes, stares, zeroes in on?

Instead of eats quickly, why not gulps, grazes, chomps, gobbles?

And yet even the most strident article leaves some wiggle room, asserting that “most of the time” a writer should avoid using adverbs.

That’s where I end up. First off, I’m not a fan of so-called writing ‘rules,’ especially when it pertains to screenwriting. Scene description is more like poetry than prose. We don’t need to use complete sentences. Hell, we can make up words to get a moment across like William Goldman did in the script Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when he describes as he Butch “barrellasses” his way back to safety while being shot at by bad guys.

Let’s say there’s a scene: A character is trying to stop a bomb from detonating. They have a wire in hand which they have to thread through a web of other wires. Why not write:

Ticking clock. Seconds counting down. Sweat strewn fingers grasp the wire. Pulls it reeeeeaaaaallllllyyyy slowly through the web of other wires.

That may not be great writing, but as a screenwriter, I’d like to have the freedom to be able to do that to convey tension and the feel of the moment.

Generally speaking, it’s best to use the strongest verb possible. Hence these two lists I’ve been promoting for years: 90 words for “looks” / 115 words for “walks.” But even though adverbs might lead to hell, there may be the rare occasion in which they convey something heavenly to the reader.


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