Are You a Timid Writer?

At the moment, I’m reading On Writing by Stephen King.


It turns out Mr King has an irrational (or perhaps entirely rational) hatred of the passive tense. And adverbs.

For those who don’t know, verbs are either active or passive. When a verb is active, the subject of a sentence (often a person) is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject – they are passive. Here’s an example:

The chicken was cooked by Jenny


Jenny cooked the chicken

Which sentence is preferable? Well, arguably neither if you’re a vegetarian – but King argues that the second sentence is preferable because it’s more direct and straightforward. It uses fewer words and gets straight to the point in a more confident manner than the passive version.

Of course, both say essentially the same thing, but they have slightly different connotations. King believes the timid writer, unsure of their voice, will opt for the passive tense in the mistaken belief it makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about – when in actual fact they are not sure they know what they’re talking about.

Adverbs are words that add meaning to or modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Clear as mud? Good. According to Wikipedia, an adverb expresses manner, place, time or degree. Here are a couple of examples:

You are quite right


You are right

She is completely wrong


She is wrong

Many of us might argue that the use of an adverb adds emphasis here – she’s not just wrong; she’s completely wrong. King argues that writers use adverbs when they’re afraid they’ve not expressed themselves clearly enough – they’re afraid the sentence on its own, without the adverb, is not good enough. He argues that if you’re any good at writing, the text immediately before and after the bit where you’re tempted to use an adverb should remove any doubt as to whether she’s completely wrong. You shouldn’t need that emphasis, if you’ve written your other sentences well.

I find this really interesting. I’ve always just written words as they came into my head, and rarely if ever go back to edit my work except for typos and errant apostrophes. Having read this, I find myself wanting to go back through all of my writing to check for adverbs and passive verbs.

I remember having English lessons in school where we were given sentences and told to mark the subject, verb and object of each. I remember taking wild guesses; it was a lottery as to whether I got them right or not. I could never understand them, and to this day I can only remember which type of word is a verb because I had to conjugate verbs in Russian lessons. I couldn’t begin to tell you what an adjective or a noun is, and I had to google “adverb” in order to understand what Stephen King was on about.

But perhaps he makes a valid point. Perhaps we use too many words because we worry that if we use too few, people won’t understand what we mean.

What do you think? I would love to hear different perspectives on this. Do you go through and check your sentences for correct structure? Do you avoid the passive tense or the use of adverbs?

Vicky Charles

Vicky is a single mother, writer and card reader.


Tim · 06/12/2014 at 00:39

I remember these two pieces of advice, which also commonly appears in other writing/style guides. When I’m writing, I find I naturally avoid passive verbs but I used to be *really* bad with excessive use of adverbs and adjectives (in particular the dreaded ‘very’). I’m more ruthless now, but one of the things on my mental checklist when editing is to prune out unnecessary adverbs/adjectives. I’m not draconian about it, but there is a balance to be struck between being expressive too with language and being too economical. One of my top tops for writing ‘tighter’ text would be to cut out at least 50% of your adjectives and adverbs. It’s amazing how much sharper anyone’s writing looks as a result!

On a related note, my other top tip is to be wary about using a ‘clever’ word when simple English is fine. There’s no need to use a long word half your readers won’t understand when a simple word everyone knows will perform the same function.

    Tim · 06/12/2014 at 00:40

    And now that I’ve read the typos in my reply above, I’m going to slink off quietly and hang my head in shame …

Isobel Morrell (@Coldhamcalling) · 06/12/2014 at 12:08

As a silver surfer, I’m of an age when grammar was part of the English curriculum and one did know exactly what was an adverb or an adjective. But we all still got/get confused! The easy way is to remember that usually adverbs describe verbs and adjectives describe nouns. Verbs are active word: nouns are names. Hope that helps – it’s got me through OK my 74+ years! However, it doesn’t help when one gets carried away on a subject and using a descriptive word to emphasise a point merely gets one into more of a pickle than one may have started out!! English is a language with more loopholes and tricks than any other! You just keep writing, but beware of not checking and only relying on excising typos and mis-spellings!

Yet Another Blogging Mummy!!! · 03/01/2015 at 21:33

Gosh, never really thought about it. Not sure which I use more #archiveday

Alexandra Mayhew · 03/01/2015 at 21:52

This is a really interesting post and got me thinking! Perhaps I should remove the ‘really’ as it’s an adverb and according to Stephen King, means I feel I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough :-S Reading your post made me want to go through everything I’ve written and do over properly! Lol… but then, I think we all have our own style of writing and expression and that’s what makes reading other peoples work so much fun! Personally I write in a conversational style, which is the kind of blog I like to read myself. But this makes adverbs absolutely necessary! So, am I a bad writer?! Oh my gosh… grammatically speaking, perhaps I am. I think I’m ok with that :-)

    Vicky Charles · 03/01/2015 at 22:54

    This is an interesting comment – purely because, if you’d put “this is an interesting post” I would think you were perhaps being droll about it and didn’t really mean it! Food for thought!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.