Sunday, September 4, 2011

In defense of ly-ing: embracing the adverb and other cardinal sins

It is a truth universally acknowledged that virtually all adverbs in writing are bad.  It is another that the words "it" and "that" are ambiguous descriptors that must be destroyed.  I say, these rules are made to be broken.  Liberally.

Who wrote the rules of writing, and more importantly, does anyone follow them?  Evidently not those who sell books.  Following a frustrated, failed attempt recently to eliminate the notorious -ly words from a chapter, I gave up and instead decided to procrastinate by conducting an experiment (always the scientist, I freely admit it.)  I randomly pulled five books from my bookshelf with the criteria that 1) they must be books I have read within the last few years, 2) they must be books I loved, and 3) they must be books that sold like hotcakes (suggesting that I wasn't alone in enjoying them).  Here are the five:

The Kite Runner
Water for Elephants
Eat, Pray, Love
Cleopatra, a Life
The Da Vinci Code

Surprisingly, I found that four of these five best-sellers contain at least three -ly words on the first page (the exception is "The Kite Runner", where I found only one.)  And yet somehow, through some apparent flaw in the system, some agent or editor or publisher either fell asleep at the wheel or felt sorry for the authors, because clearly, each of these books did OK.  So I suppose it can be hypothesized that the occasionally, strategically placed -ly word does not categorically kill a good book. 

When we read each other's works, it is easy to fall back on a broken rule as the obvious point to critique.  It is also a cop-out.  We go on a feeding frenzy, gobbling up those poor, innocent little adverbs like krill, rather than stepping back and asking ourselves, "did that adverb actually do any harm to the sentence?  Or is it possible I just didn't give the poor little guy a chance?"  Or, God forbid, did the adverb serve its purpose?  Perhaps it fine-tuned ("modified", as they say) the verb, and thus even added something to the text.  Legitimately. 

It is my opinion that all well-placed words are viable, and that placing a blanket restriction on any of them only limits the vocabulary and sterilizes the writing.  Sometimes only an F bomb will do.  Other times, it is an adverb.  Or an "it."  So don't be afraid to embrace the adverb and other cardinal sins of writing.  As for the rule?  F it.  Really.