by Dr. Ann Gelder, CRANE writer
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Can Stephen King help you market your school?
Surely no one knows more than Stephen King about the road to hell—or successful writing. And many education professionals seem to agree with his view of modifiers. Adverbs as well as adjectives, they believe, are at best unnecessary adornments to the central message, and at worst insincere, even false.
But is spare, unadorned prose the best path for conveying your institution’s identity?
At CRANE, we take King’s point as a caution, not a doctrine. We believe there’s another road, paved with elegantly deployed modifiers, that can lead prospective families, honestly and effectively, to choosing your school.
King dislikes adverbs for two main reasons. First, as he explains in On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft, they can indicate weakness in the surrounding prose:
Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really needs to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door?
You’ll get no argument from us on the importance of active verbs (He closed the door rather than The door was closed by him) or of specificity (choosing slammed vs. closed). Making such decisions, word by word, sentence by sentence, remains critical to good writing—whether it’s a suspense novel or a school’s About Us page.
We also agree that the context of every sentence matters. You can’t expect one sentence, and certainly not one adverb in that sentence, to carry the show when the rest of the actors aren’t doing their jobs.
But what if you have met these requirements? Does that render all adverbs—and adjectives—unnecessary?
Not—as King himself suggests here—if you need to make fine distinctions in meaning. And, because you’re writing about what makes your school stand out from all other top schools in your area, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
By all means, ask yourself if firmly really needs to be there. But remember that sometimes, the answer is yes. Other times, you may still need a modifier—just a different one.
Which brings us to King’s second point:
[Adverbs] are like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.
It’s certainly possible to overuse modifiers. Especially—as King hints—if those particular modifiers are not good. Of the three adverbs he highlights here, two—totally and completely—just can’t do the work. Sensing their inadequacy, the writer (that is, the struggling writer King’s pretending to be here) starts piling on more of the same, in an effort to shore up the words’ weakness. The reader, in turn, detects the writer’s lack of confidence, and so misses or doubts the underlying message—the lawn, as it were.
On the other hand, profligately is an interesting, specific adverb that looks bad only because of the other, unhelpful words leading up to it. To us, that’s a crucial distinction that King’s anti-adverbial zeal glosses over.
Instead of categorizing all modifiers as weeds, what if you carefully plant only precise, interesting, and true modifiers in your prose? Might the beautiful green expanse of your message leap forth even more vividly?
Take a look at the Portrait of a Graduate page on the website of St. George’s Independent School,* paying special attention to the adverbs and adjectives. What do you think?
*St. George’s is a CRANE client.