Suddenly, A Post About Adverbs!

My writers already know that I have a very, very low tolerance for “sudden” and “suddenly” As in, I delete every instance of it I find. I could spend a very long time railing against adverb use. Figuratively, centuries. I have backup for my assertions.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”
–Stephen King

The word “suddenly,” used once in any novel, is most likely used one time too many. “Suddenly” is one of the most over-used and misused adverbs in existence.

Consider for a moment the telephone. It either rings, or it does not ring. If we don’t know someone’s going to call, the telephone ringing is by definition unexpected. Even–dare we say it–sudden.

A torch does not slowly flare to life; saying it suddenly flares to life is unnecessary. You don’t need to say that the masonry eagle statue suddenly smashed to pieces just in front of where our brave detective protagonist is walking. If it wasn’t sudden, the detective wouldn’t have been taken by surprise, and instead, he would have taken the side exit to avoid it! Many, many other things in life are similarly sudden, in the sense of unexpected or unanticipated. In the vast majority of cases, it is unnecessary to explain that something was “sudden.”

Beyond “sudden” being unnecessary, it suffers the same weakness of all adverbs. Adverbs are qualifiers; they constrict or focus the definition of the word they accompany. There are various reasons why editors try to kill all adverbs we see (no, not just suddenly!). For one thing, as with the use of verb phrases (e.g. “get out” and “turn in”), adverb use is lazy writing. The writer isn’t looking for a better single verb or more descriptive phrasing, both of which exist in ample supply. Here’s a painful example:

After glaring at the guard a moment longer, Jason walked loudly away.

“Walk loudly” is a dance of two words where neither of the partners really knows the steps. The single verb “stomp” is more pointed solo performance.

And if on occasion there’s no single verb available?

The schoolmaster winked creepily at me.

In this case, no single verb is coming to mind. So it’s time for Plan B, which also involves not being lazy, and instead, writing better. The phrase “winked creepily” is telling rather than showing. Let’s call it stage direction. The writer loses out on a chance to specify what exactly the character senses, rather than simply explain that the character has a feeling. Something more visceral:

The schoolmaster gave me a serial-killer’s wink.

Other adverbs are (like “suddenly”) simply unnecessary. Phrases such as “she actually screamed” and “he is really doing well” are similar to “suddenly” in that the adverb is a prop alongside the verb that shouldn’t be there. She either screamed or she didn’t, so actually doesn’t mean anything in the sentence. He is either doing well or he isn’t, so saying he’s really doing well is the same as saying he’s doing well. Don’t take away from the verb’s glory with unnecessary distractions. A few other examples:

Sharon decided to change the subject a bit.

(Doctor McCoy never said, “He’s a bit dead, Jim.”)

The innkeeper actually looked somewhat amused by this new turn of events.

(Actually somewhat? That’s double trouble!)

She opened the package and happily grinned at what was inside.

(People who are not happy do not grin.)

Always keep in mind, verbs are fearless. They are not afraid to stand on their own. They do not need puny adverbs to stand around trying to look good next to them!

If you need more reasons to shun adverbs, read this followup post: “Suddenly! A Post About Adverbs: Industrious Writers’ Edition.”

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

If you’re looking for an editor or proofreader, here I am. Read about the services I offer and get in touch!

One Comment