Truly, Deeply Mad About Adverbs?

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of passionate defenses of the adverb, along with claims by writers that overzealous editors now wage an unmerited war against this descriptive form.  Along with an attack on the passive voice and gerund phrases, the claim seems to be that editors grow hysterical at the mere breath of an “ly” or “ing,” rather than focusing on the greater substance of a piece. 

But I don’t see much proof of this among the editors I know. Speaking for myself, I never get hung up on the occasional use of the passive voice or flat/generic "to be" choices. Nor do I even REGISTER the occasional adverb if it's used in an appropriate way. I don't believe that any editor or critiquer worth his/her salt would make a big deal of such language peppered throughout a piece. 

HOWEVER, I do find that some writers can be complacent in terms of self-editing. Their first drafts are filled with gerund phrases and adverbs simply because that's what spilled onto the page as they wrote. And then they're not challenging themselves to sharpen up their prose during their next passes through the text.

So, if you can make a case for a gerund form—the very critical difference between, “the priest was dying” and “the priest died,” for example, I'm all for it. There ARE differences in meaning. But if you can't, if it's there because that's the way it came out of your mind, then as an editor, I will challenge you to sharpen up, to do better.

And as a matter of fact, someone dying is one of those few instances where the degree really makes a difference. In terms of reader psychology, "He was skipping down the street" and "He skipped down the street" both tend to register as acts in progress.  

Adverbs, too, can be deadly because they're often employed in a redundant fashion (e.g., "He chortled merrily," "She glared angrily."). If your verbs are strong enough, then for the most part adverbs are unnecessary, and they detract rather than add to the fluidity and power of your language. 

Again, this is GENERALLY speaking. My battle is often against laziness, against tired writing that hasn't TRULY been edited and against tired tropes (such as "those who can't do, teach"), which are usually untrue and certainly uninspired.

Writing is art.  My job as an editor is to get inside an author's intentions for a piece, to approach it from the perspective of who their characters are, what they want, how they express themselves, etc.  If adverbs help create a dimension in the narrative voice, have at them. But have at them with purpose and direction.

Each case is different, but sharp writing--in any voice--has power and clarity and "hums" in a kind of magical way. That's what I want for myself and for everyone else--that magical hum, that "sizzle," as one of my students put it. In my view, the "rules" are not meant to hinder but to allow the freshest, sharpest, most powerful form of expression to reach your reader's inner ear.

-- Lorin