Archives For On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I believe the author Stephen King would hate the language of the Common Core State Standards for one reason: unnecessary adverbs. His book On Writing has a section devoted to explaining why The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

I have written about King and adverbs before. As I am implementing the standards in my high school English curriculums, I find myself agreeing with him.  Take, for example, the Common Core Anchor Reading Standard 1. The standard states:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1

The use of adverbs in this standard has led to more confusion, not less. The expression “read closely” was recoined as “close reading,” and that has resulted in parodies of teachers holding books up to their faces, mocking the standard. Why the writers of the Common Core felt the need to modify the action verb “read” at all is perplexing. Students must read to determine what a text says. That is all. The admonishment to “read closely” to determine what the “text says explicitly” infers the author is either trying to slip an idea past a reader or the author has been ineffective in communicating the idea. I am not convinced any author would appreciate this standard.

Moreover, the Common Core Anchor Writing Standards have the same problem, for example,

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2

I believe that every teacher requires students to convey “complex ideas and information clearly and accurately,” yet the language of this standard infers that students would be allowed to write distorted or inaccurate responses. The standard should read, “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.” The adverbs are redundant, as King demonstrates in On Writing: (bolded words his choice)

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 has 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? And if the foregoing prose doestell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

The same editing should be applied to the Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1

In this standard, the subjective nature of the adverb “effectively” creates the same confusion as reading “closely.” This standard could be made measurable if the emphasis was on the infinitive “to persuade” rather than on the timid adverbs “effectively” and “persuasively.”  How does one measure these terms, unless by degrees? An argument is either effective or not. Readers are persuaded or not. A standard is unequivocal. The present wording could lead to much equivocating if a reader has to determine the degree of “effectively” or “persuasively.” Try this rewrite: Prepare for and participate in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas in order to persuade.”

In addition, the Language (or grammar standards) themselves contain a distracting adverbial phrase:

Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3

The phrase comprehend”more fully” sounds like a phrase from one of my student’s essays. I would equate the construct of “more fully” with “as a whole” or “the fact that” or the ubiquitous word “flows” found in my weaker writers’ responses. These are all phrases that receive a large NO! in red ink from me as I grade or confer. A reader comprehends or a reader does not.

King argues that writers must be deliberate in stemming adverbs in this selection from On Writing:

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re 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. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.

King is proved correct about the propagation of adverbs in the language of the Common Core. Adverbs pop up in the NOTES ON sections that follow the anchor standards. For example:

Notes on Range and Content of Student Reading

Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

Notes on Range and Content of Student Speaking and Listening

Digital texts confront students with the potential for continually updated content and dynamically changing combinations of words, graphics, images, hyperlinks, and embedded video and audio.

When a reader removes the bolded words, the pedantic tone disappears. The implications that curriculum is “unintentional” or “unstructured” is removed. The confusion as to what reading “closely” means is removed. Don’t even get me started as to why “dynamically” is there, although I suspect the use is to suggest there may be some form of cool media out there that does not yet exist so the CCSS writers modified the adjective “changing” on combination with “dynamically” to cover future media constructs. The only adverb in this section that needs to be included is “independently,” and that should be an adjective. We all want independent readers, so be clear and say “independent readers.”

Stephen King has had an impact on my writing, and when I come to including an adverb I pause to think if that adverb is necessary. Would that the writers of the Common Core felt the same. The standards are riddled with adverbs. How did I find most of them? I used the “Find” option (command-F on my Mac) and put “LY” in the search box. How did I know that most adverbs end with ly?  Here, for your enjoyment, is my favorite adverb resource, a video from Schoolhouse Rock with the charming song about adverbs that remains emblazoned on my brain:

Consider how the advice from King and the lesson from this video can be used by teachers in stopping the flood of adverbs and in applying the Speaking and Listening standard in a classroom where “Digital texts confront students with the potential for updated content and changing combinations of words”….. NOTE: continually and dynamically not included.


Stephen King scares me. I have read only a handful of his books: Christine, The Green Mile, Carrie, but those have left a residue in my brain. My fear, created by the gruesome images in his fiction, would probably please him: he likes to tell stories that unsettle the reader.

I have, however, become a fan of his non-fiction book On Writing. While I am not as rabid as Annie Wilkes of Misery, I push this book on as many readers as possible. When I mention King’s name, however, I recognize the same uncomfortable flicker in their eyes. King scares them.

“No, really,” I urge, “this is nothing like the Stephen King books you don’t like. This is the Stephen King book you will like.”

On the surface, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is King’s memoir mixed with writing tips. The book is divided into three parts; the second part has two subsets of witty literary criticism.

In section one, the reader learns about King’s childhood, the history of his writing career, and the inspiration for several stories. He discusses his addictions, his stories, and his marriage to Tabitha, an author and his chief literary critic. In the second section, King discusses the craft of writing, first through the use of a “toolbox” of grammar  and then with application of these tips in various works of literature. The third and final section of the book covers his near death experience in June of 1999 when he was hit by a motorist on a side road in Maine.

We assign this book to our juniors who are taking the Advanced Placement English Language class, a course in familiarizing students with rhetoric and argument. The critical commentaries he offers in his “toolbox” section are especially helpful in helping students develop a style of writing.

He lectures the reader in a voice that is informal and wise. He gets the respect that English teachers struggling to impart the importance of subject-verb agreement crave to have from students. Plus, he swears; he swears a lot:

“You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semeste rin Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one. Relax. Chill. We won’t spend much time here because we don’t need to. One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or not.”

Some of his other observations include:

“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word — of course you will, there’s always another word — but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”

“Bad grammar produces bad sentences.”

The adverb is not your friend. … Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.”

I have had some success in locating used copies of the book in its various editions. There are hardcovers and paperbacks in the secondary markets of thrift stores and library book sales, but I need to look close at the book spines since they are different in size and appearance. Our class set is a mish-mash of all editions.  The most frequent edition’s cover art is a picture of the cellar door, and if there was a book cover design that was dead wrong for the contents, this cover gets my vote. The cellar door may mean entrance to the “foundation” of writing, but the cream colored clapboards, bright window, and potted plant are an odd chice for King. The cover art with the letters of rejection nailed to a wall is macabre, perhaps a better choice for King and the contents. My favorite cover, though, is the most recent and centers on a photo of King working at his desk.

Cover simply did not match content!

Cover disconnect from content.

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall

The macabre cover with rejection letters nailed to the wall; blood red title.

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content

The most appropriate cover; one that matches the content-King writing On Writing

Last week, I offered this book to my own book group, an adult group of educated readers. Our discussion led to the question, “What is good writing?” We failed like so many others to come up with a definitive answer, but we did appreciate KIng’s four pages of suggested titles listed at the end of the memoir to read as examples of good writing. This list brings me to a major point in On Writing, King likes to read. This is repeated many times in the text:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

“If you want to be a writeryou must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

King’s dedication to the craft of writing is inspiring; the final paragraph captures his passion:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

On Writing has changed how I write. Because of On Writing, I hesitate to add an adverb (see? I consciously did not use “frequently hesitate”). I hear his voice say “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs” when I craft sentences,

My favorite part of the “toolbox” deals with his disdain for the passive voice. King tells the writer to “energize your prose with active verbs. … good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”  My students tell me they write in write in passive voice to sound smart, so I need to counter with a clear example of why the use active voice is more powerful. King provides me a hilarious example:

“Everyone’s entitled to his/her opinion, but I don’t believe ‘With a hammerhe killed Frank‘ will ever replace ‘He killed Frank with a hammer.’”

“But how do you know when you are using passive voice?” my students ask. I offer my new “tool” to test, a tool I found on a Facebook post.

“If you can put ‘by Zombies’ after the verb, then you have passive voice,” I respond.

“Frank was killed…by Zombies?”

“Passive voice. To make the sentence active, you would have to write, ‘The Zombies killed Frank’. Much clearer, don’t you think?”

Passive voice and Zombies? I think Stephen King would enjoy that discussion.