One of the writing instructions I’ve always taken with a molecule of NaCl is to never use adverbs. I constantly see this advice in the various writing blogs I follow, most recently in a Men with Pens post by Chris Banks titled 5 Common Mistakes that Even Great Writers Make. On adverbs, Banks offers this advice:
Adverbs are evil. Often, they’re redundant. (“Creeping stealthily,” or, “whispering quietly”, for example.) At other times, they just serve as a prop-up for weak verbs, like “go”, “have” or “to be”.
In his book ‘On Writing’, Stephen King wrote that 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. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s – GASP!! – too late.”
Instead of using an adverb, strengthen the verb itself. For example, instead of, “I really have to..” try, “I need to.”
A lot of adverbs end in –ly, so you can do a “find” search for “ly” with a space after it to spot adverbs in your text. Some are harder to spot, and you’ll need to work to unearth them.
Just like those dandelions.
Can you spot the problems? Look closely. Okay, I’ll give it to you: Excluding the second paragraph (most of which is a quotation), half of the sentences in the section advising against using adverbs use adverbs. Furthermore, the adverbs Banks uses don’t look anything like his description. “Often,” “instead” and “just” are … ahem … just as adverbial as anything ending in “–ly.” And furtherer-more, phrases like “At other times” — which is contrasted with “Often” — act exactly like adverbs. Suddenly, this top-heavy advice comes crashing down.
(As an aside, the whole “search for words that end in –ly” advice is poor for another reason: Many adjectives end in “–ly.” For example, “friendly” is an adjective that has no adverbial form. One would have to use a word like “congenially” or a phrase like “in a friendly manner” to get an adverbial sense. Now consider “cowardly,” which is both an adjective and an adverb. Too bad most people avoid “pusillanimous” and it’s adverbial cognate. *sigh*)
The rest of the post is the same way. The lede contains three sentences and four adverbs (“again,” “often,” “eventually,” “really”). The sections describing the four other common writing mistakes are nearly as bad. Eventhe headline uses an adverb.
Perhaps I’ve picked on Banks’ post enough. He is giving well-meaning advice, and as I mentioned above, I’ve seen the same stupid guidance given many, many, many times in just as many places. Banks is only regurgitating what he’s read and heard. The fact that he blissfully ignores his own use of adverbs shouldn’t be held against him, right?
The problem here is systemic amongst writers, writing coaches, advice columnists and editors. It goes beyond mere misidentification and flirts terribly with outright ignorance. In my experience, people who argue against using adverbs aren’t really arguing that adverbs are bad. Rather, they are arguing against using adverbs superfluously.
Take Banks’ advice: “For example, instead of, ‘I really have to..’ try, ‘I need to.'” This is actually good advice, butnot because the second option avoids adverbs. It’s good advice because the second option uses fewer words to say the same thing. When writing, it is almost always better to tighten up sentences when possible. If you can use a verb that incorporates a sense which might otherwise require an adverb, great! But the focus shouldn’t be on avoiding adverbs; it should be on avoiding unnecessary words.
Because for every example of an excessive adverb, there is also an example of a useful one. For example, say I’m late to a business meeting and want to get there as fast as possible without working up a sweat: I walkquickly. I don’t run (too much exertion), march (too military), strut (too self-absorbed), pace (too leisurely), stroll, amble, hike, tramp. “Stride” might work, but then I still have to describe my style of striding — which requires an adverb! I could technically avoid using an adverb by writing, “I walk in a quick manner,” but that’s the same as saying “quickly,” and why use four words where one will do?
People like Banks should not advocate against using adverbs. Rather, they should advocate against using adverbs poorly. Adverbs are no more evil than guns, and likewise, it is not the adverb’s fault if you wield it incompetently or with malice. Something can be “fresh and green,” but if you call it “verdantly green,” then you’re a pompously presumptuous prick — one might say, the Plaxico Burress of grammar. But the answer isn’t to avoid adverbs altogether. Instead, learn how to use adverbs appropriately, and give proper advice regarding their use.
Perhaps then people won’t go around shooting off half-cocked advice, and the world will be a better place — if only slightly.