When I was just starting out in fiction writing, I took a short story workshop at a venerable San Antonio writers cooperative. I wrote a story I thought was okay and brought it to class for critiquing. Most of my classmates liked it, and some liked it a lot. One man, though, sat through the discussion with a look of utter disdain. When things finally died down, he gave me his critique. He’d recently taken a workshop with a well-known writer, he said, and she’d told him that using adverbs was the mark of poor writing. He handed me back my MS, and sure enough he’d marked every single word ending in –ly and told me to delete them all. Now some of the words he’d marked were actually adjectives (leisurely, for example), but never mind. I’d heard that advice before. Get rid of all adverbs before you send your MS off to an editor.
Frankly, that’s crap. It’s also a great example of a half-remembered rule. What the well-known writer had probably told my critiquer was that it’s usually better if you can find a strong verb rather than a weak verb plus adverb. She could also have said it’s better to find a strong noun rather than a weak noun plus adjective. That’s a good principle, but it’s a long way from saying never use adverbs.
Overuse of adverbs is bad, but saying you can never use them, in effect eliminating an entire class of words from your vocabulary, is overkill. I understand why people embrace these ideas, though. It’s a lot easier to say “Never use them” than to try to figure out what constitutes effective and ineffective use. But let’s face it—sometimes that strong verb doesn’t exist. Or sometimes you like the rhythm of the adverb in your voice. Or sometimes you just feel like using “said slowly” rather than “drawled” (and if you think about it, those two aren’t exact synonyms).
In general, I’d suggest caution whenever somebody gives you a hard-and-fast dogmatic writing principle to live by, particularly if it involves style. I once worked for a magazine where the General Editor refused to consider the word dove as a past tense for dive (it was an underwater photography magazine, so this came up a lot). Now I could show her countless entries in usage guides indicating that dove was, in fact, perfectly acceptable. She didn’t care—she knew the difference between right and wrong. She had her principles.
Personally, I’ve always loved what Groucho Marx once said: “I have my principles, and if you don’t like them…I have others.” In this case, the principle should be If it works, do it.