Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "On Adverbs"

Ah, I think beginning writers simply mistake "advice for beginning writers" with "The Rules for Writing."

It really is wise for beginning writers to follow that advice, because they will tend to make a particular suite of mistakes, most of which can be avoided... but then for a long time afterward, we tend to forget out how to be READERS rather than critiquers, and our zeal for adverbial deletion becomes a hard and fast rule.

And sometimes, yes, you will catch a pro committing a classic newbie mistake. But mostly I think we newbies just don't realize that pro writers actually do know how to use adverbs and other "forbidden" devices correctly.

(I always desperately struggle with the urge to claim that I am an automaton selling aphrodisiacs. But then you will delete my comment, alas.)

Posted by Jackie M. at July 2, 2011 11:30 AM

Perhaps it's because I have become so fond of Victorian writers, but I feel that the advice against adverbs is simply stylistic advice: write this way, not that way. Don't write like Charles Dickens or Walt Whitman, write like Ernest Hemingway or Saul Bellow. There are lots of ways to be a good writer, and invariably eliminating adverbs narrows the options.

On the other hand, it didn't occur to me that the advice was meant to be about a particular kind of adverb; that it is not about refusing to say that a particular thing happened slowly or yesterday but that a person spoke petulantly or snidely. This latter advice (particularly if addressed as think twice before…) seems like reasonably good advice, but then applies to the use of adjectives as well. Avoiding the adjective by rephrasing as in a willful manner isn't a plus—and while one would surmise that only a beginning writer would do such a thing, that takes away from the idea of it being useful advice from beginning writers.

In fact, while I do understand the necessity, I am skeptical of the idea that there is a set of Training Rules for Beginning Writers, and that at some point a writer gets Officially Certified for Rulebreaking. Phrasing them as observations about how these tools work avoids that somewhat, which I like.


Posted by Vardibidian at July 2, 2011 03:00 PM

I took a grammar class in college, not to help my writing but to help my tutoring; there were too many times when I'd say "I feel like it should be this but I can't tell you why" and this was, to my mind, Unacceptable.

While it definitely helped my tutoring, I found that it helped my writing even more than I expected. That's because my professor presented everything as options: here are rules, or at least guidelines, and mostly you want to follow them, but once you've learned what they are and why they exist that way, you can choose when and how to break them. It made so much sense! It was so practical, so helpful!

I feel like adverbs are one of those things like first person narrators, where anybody can use them because they're easy, but in fact they're difficult to use well. And I like that idea of "think twice before" or "stop and think before" because it's not that you can't or shouldn't use adverbs (or first person narrators), but that ideally you should stop and think about why you are making that choice instead of a different one, and what (if anything) it adds to the story.

(I should say, I have nothing against first-person narrators--there are many of whom I am quite fond--but they have a lot of specific advantages and disadvantages that may not be obvious until you stop and think about how they function in a story. Or at least, I didn't really think about them until Alpha or whenever it was someone first pointed this out to me.)

Posted by Emily Gilman at July 3, 2011 04:23 AM

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