Proverbially

One of the first bits of style-improvement advice most writers get is “eliminate your adverbs.”

Like most entry-level advice, it’s good right up to the point where you don’t need it any more, and after that it can hinder as much as it helps.

The thing is, most entry-level writers do have a tendency to rely on adverbs to fine-tune the descriptive power of their verbs, or to be placeholders for better words that they promise themselves they’ll think of later.  (And sometimes they do think of the better words later, in the second or third draft, which is a sign that they’re not entry-level writers any more.)  For those writers, “eliminate your adverbs” is a real and valid step toward improving and streamlining their prose.  The act of going through their manuscripts and deleting all the words ending in -ly is, if nothing else, instructive — they see how little meaning is lost in that process, and how much force and directness is gained.  They train themselves not to be compulsive adverbializers.

At that point, though, it’s time to stop, before they train themselves to be obsessive adverb eliminators — because adverbs, like all the other parts of speech, exist for a reason.  Sometimes the only way to express a precise shade of meaning, or to give a sentence the exact rhythm that it needs, is by using a carefully chosen adverb.

(See “carefully”, above.  Yeah.)

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