Tips For Writers: Stephen King: On Adjectives And Adverbs

I just finished reading Stephen King’s autobiography-slash-writing tips book On Writing. 

I know, as an aspiring writer it was high time that I did. Stephen King is the Shakespeare of modern literature with his far out plots, realistic dialogue,  and distinctive characters. On Writing is a must read for any aspiring writer.

King presents On Writing in three parts. The first part is a short and poignant autobiography. His account of writing stories as a kid and selling them for a quarter to his mother, piles of rejection slips and then hitting it big with Carrie is amazing.

In part two, he presents very personalized tips on the craft.

He uses a vivid description of a cavernous red tool box as an analogy for possessing the tools for good writing. And just as a craftsman, a writer carries his tools with him to every job.

On the top shelf of the tool box is vocabulary, the nuts, and bolts of writing. Stephen advises not  to make a conscious effort to improve it. He reminds aspiring writers that their vocabulary will grow naturally through reading.

(He establishes early on that a writer must read in order to write)

Overuse of Adjectives and Adverbs

Along with redundancy, one of Stephen King’s pet peeves is the overuse of adjectives and adverbs. He writes by the rule of 10% less than what was in the original draft.

Stephen goes on to show how he gets rid of pesky and awkward adjectives and adverbs while editing his first draft. (Which he has purposely leaves untouched for about six weeks).

King’s examples of editing for useless adjectives and adverbs caused me to pause and think about my own writing.

He says that many adverbs are just not needed. They only slow down the pace of the story.

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Biscuit greeted his master happily that afternoon when he finally got home.

Ask yourself: “Would Biscuit greet his master unhappily? Probably not.

A better choice, if perhaps no adverb at all, would be ‘eagerly’. Placed in front of the verb, it lets the reader know that Biscuit is a faithful dog, one that is still active and happy to see his master without having to use the adverb happily, which makes the sentence sound amateurish.

So, Biscuit eagerly greeted his master that afternoon when he finally got home.

Avoiding Redundancy

“Oh, you are just a doll,” answered Angie in a syrupy-sweet voice.

If Angie’s voice is syrupy, we can assume it is also a sweet voice. It wouldn’t sound sour or bitter. As Stephen would say, strike sweet.

Angie answered in a syrupy voice. I chose to keep syrupy over sweet. It says sweet a bit more cleverly.

I think what Stephen is trying to tell us is to use adjectives and adverbs that compliment our writing without slowing down the story.

Adjectives and adverbs are like dressing up a new outfit with accessories. Sometimes less is more. Like any other part of speech, adjectives and adverbs have their place and can help explain and drive the plot. Used correctly, they can help to create a picture in the reader’s mind.

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Jill ran into the arms of her fiance returning from that awful bloody war. Awful, and bloody and to the mood of the story. They also add to the setting and time. The reader will conjure up a war from the past rather than chemical or nuclear war from the future.

The editing stage is the time to get rid of those pesky adjectives and adverbs. This will help to polish your manuscript and get it ready for the final edit.

***

The [dangerous] thief [quickly] picked the lock on the flimsy door and tiptoed [quietly] down the hall.  The [glow of the moon] led the way.

The thief picked the lock of the flimsy door and tiptoed down the hall. The moon’s glow led the way.

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