Posted by: Hannah | 03/25/2011

why JK Rowling needs a red pen

My kids are obsessed with Harry Potter. OBSESSED. Some day, when they are all grown up and reading about How Things Were in 2000, they will find out that if only I’d been a teenaged mother they could have been born years earlier, and thus could have been old enough to wait in line at midnight to get each thick-as-a-paving-stone hardcover book when it came out.

Then I won’t get flowers for Mother’s Day that year.

They watch the movies (well, not all of them. I haven’t quite got up the gumption to show Half-Blood Prince yet, because Dumbledore is a bit of a grandpa figure, and I’m thinking watching him plummet backwards off that tower might be just a wee bit traumatic. Maybe.) They have made wands out of rolled-up paper and run through the house casting “expelliarmus” on one another (the disarming charm, in case you’re wondering).  They play Harry Potter Lego for Wii as much as I’ll let them. And then talk about it afterwards. Thing #1 saves up his allowance to buy actual HP Lego playsets and uses them like action figures.

And, gradually, we are reading the books. We’re currently on chapter 20 of book four.

This is where the problem is coming from, for me.

I love the books. I am a fan. I’ve read them over and over again. I did actually buy Deathly Hallows at midnight and then banned all TV & internet for the two days it took me to read it because I didn’t want spoilers. I play the video game too – it’s fun, and some of the puzzles are fairly intricate.

Turns out though that reading them aloud is not the same as reading them inside my head.

Reading them aloud is ruining them for me a bit.

JK Rowling has a brilliant creative mind. I will not take that away from her. She has created enduring characters that are beloved by millions. She got a whole generation of kids reading for fun. She deserves all the kudos she’s received.



She commits some cardinal writing sins that I just never noticed until reading the books aloud. And the one that’s killing it for me is her complete and utter dependence on the adverb.

In his fascinating and workmanlike book “On Writing”, Stephen King wrote “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs”. They are lazy. They encourage wooly writing that isn’t pleasing to the ear. If I find them in my own writing, I do try my level best to get rid of them if I can… because reading one jerks me right back out of the story.

And man oh man, JK Rowling freakin’ loves her adverbs. Like, perhaps she is trying to bring them back into repute. Or perhaps her editor is sloppy. Or doesn’t want to insult the goose that laid seven golden eggs.

A sample of adverbs I’ve had to read aloud, so far:

  1. nervously
  2. sleepily
  3. automatically
  4. angrily
  5. dejectedly
  6. syncophantically (try saying that five times fast)

And then, last night, the sentence that made me start editing out the damn adverbs as I was reading:

“blah blah blah something something” said Sirius, seriously.

I never understood why she named a main character “Sirius” to start with. Like, I get it; bright star yadda yadda. But when you’re reading it aloud, it sounds peculiar. To then get a character named “Sirius” to do anything “seriously” is just laughable.

The books are getting longer. The chapters, same. When we first started it was a chapter a night. Now it’s more like a chapter over two nights, because trying to read all the dialogue aloud in a way that Thing #1 can follow it, while editing out the adverbs, explaining the British-isms, and twisting my tongue around the Latin spells & charms is exhausting.

So – word to the wise. Before embarking on a read-aloud project with 4,176 total pages, test it out first. Read a few chapters aloud in “practice mode” before promising to do so for real with your kids. Take it from me.




  1. Adverbs are a heavily freighted topic. I remember being shocked once when one of the T.A.s I was supervising wrote on a student’s paper, “Avoid adverbs.” Completely! As in, eliminate the entire PART OF SPEECH from your vocabulary! A caution against overuse I might understand, but I was horrified at the idea of such a wholesale campaign.

    Then I came upon a car in the parking lot one day with a “Save the Adverb” bumper sticker. I think I need one of those!

  2. True. I don’t think every adverb in the English language should be, as Mark Twain suggested, “stepped on before it can breed”. And I didn’t notice her overuse of adverbs until I started reading the books aloud. Tonight, for example, we hit the sentence that ended “Ron said conciliatorily”.

    That is a crime against language, that is. 😉

  3. ‘An adverb should be stepped on before it can breed’? I think I just fell in love with Mark Twain.

  4. I just totally stole your Mark Twain quote for twitter. It’s brilliant.

  5. Conciliatorily! Oh my.

  6. Heh, Mark Twain was the shit. He would have loved Twitter. His best quotes were all less than 140 characters.

    And I know, conciliatorily. I can’t even say it without slowing down and enunciating every syllable.

  7. I love that Stephen King book! Which makes no sense since I don’t find his writing to be very compelling. But it did change the way I look at and use adverbs. If all else fails with your Harry Potter read-aloud, you could leave the work to Jim Dial. His audiobook versions of the series are wonderful.

  8. Twain also said, “When it comes to the adjective, if in doubt, strike it out.” Words to live by. Sure, cutting out entire parts of speech is drastic, but they can often be a warning to revise. To my mind strong writing is driven by good verbs, and heavy dependence on adjectives or adverbs means you’re probably not putting your mind to choosing descriptive verbs (whispered instead of said quiety, raged or yelled instead of said loudly, apologized instead of saying conciliatorily…)

  9. I never noticed the adverb thing. You must give her this – her dialogue is excellent. Although you’re brave to be reading the books to kids so young. Rowling refused to read them to her daughter until she was 12. Have fun explaining Fred’s “we kept our peckers up somehow” line in the next book :-p

    • If you never noticed, then may I apologize in advance for pointing it out – because now you won’t be able to un-see it. Oops.

      As for the age, well, I know some of it is soaring over their heads… but I wanted them to know the saga was books first, before it was movies, video games, or overpriced Lego building kits. (And they *are* boys. We’ve had the variations on the “peckers up” discussion several times already. Just you wait – you’ll see.)

  10. […] Hodgepodge first pointed this out, and I checked, and she is absolutely right. It’s funny I hadn’t noticed it before. […]

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