Adverbs? But Stephen King talks about them like readers talk about his antagonists!
Right. And he is–but it’s easy to take it too far. Let us start with the fact that not all adverbs end in -ly (and not all -ly words are adverbs), so spotting them doesn’t just require a document search. One must read the writing with some application of basic grammar. An adverb, as most of you probably know, is a word or combination of words that modifies a verb:
She ran very quickly down the sidewalk.
If you think like me, of course, you saw the problem with that sentence in short order. The adverbs do not pay their way; a better verb could replace them, and one could even argue they are redundant. The better verb would be childishly easy:
She sped down the sidewalk.
That’s your basic test and correction in simplest form.
I let more adverbs go than perhaps most editors do. I brought up the part about -ly endings because that’s the sort of simple dogmatic crap that one might get from the not insignificant population of crummy editors who would be paralyzed without spellcheck, grammar check and word searching. When I see your adverb, I ask myself whether a better verb could subsume its meaning. I also ask whether the adverb adds anything of substance to the verb (handy mnemonic for writers, perhaps). In my earlier example, she’s already running; would we say she ran slowly? Kind of doubt that. We make clear she’s on the sidewalk, so the default presumption is she’s on foot; we can trust the reader to infer this specific of “to run,” especially as there would be surrounding context to inform us she isn’t driving a Harley down the sidewalk, or doing something else odd. The only thing we got from the original adverbs was that the author wanted to make clear she was seriously booking down that sidewalk. We have many fine options:
She sprinted down the sidewalk.
She dashed down the sidewalk.
She raced down the sidewalk.
How would you choose? If this were a developmental edit, you’d explain this to the client and ask them to hunt up a better verb. In developmental editing, I don’t correct everything. It works far better to correct a few examples of a writing misbehavior, define it clearly, and encourage the client to hunt down and repair the rest herself. While a part of her might be cussing you and/or crying in frustration, another part of her knows she’s growing. The editor is helping her reach her potential.
After you’ve staked your fiftieth adverb, the lesson has either begun to sink in or it hasn’t, and we have an uptake problem. When you picture writers, you probably picture retreats full of brilliant remarks and an urgent need not to have to explain any references–the intellectual big kids. That stereotype exists (and it might surprise you to learn that it doesn’t really extend into editing so much; maybe we have less to prove), but there’s another subset that just doesn’t improve. You can teach until you run out of red pens and they still don’t get it. I’m not mocking them because they are to writing as I am to calculus, but they do exist.
One way to help such a person is with a substantive edit, which aims to create text that is ready for proofreading. Maybe the client has just decided that she doesn’t need to write better as long as her editor is willing to fix it up, and if so, that’s a valid choice. As long as she’s been told of the problem, with explanations and encouragement in good faith and directed at her best interests, the editor must live with the client’s choices or tell her to find a new editor. I’ve had to do that before, and it’s not fun, but I can’t always live with the client’s choices. When I can’t, the client deserves someone who can.
So how is this mavericky? Because I’m somewhat more permissive. First I try to improve on the adverb. If it adds something, and I can’t improve on it, it serves a purpose and should stay–but my definition of “adds something” might differ from that of others. There are times to use a redundant adverb for effect; dialogue uses redundant adverbs all the time; sometimes it just brings a different flavor. I’m by no means the only editor who looks at it this way. To my mind, the purpose of writing is to communicate with an audience. No two audiences are identical, nor are any two writing voices, and we handle this by reading the writing. We don’t answer it by quoting a reference.
Lastly, the people have spoken. I asked the Facebook page with regard to changing this page’s title to “The Editorial Maverick.” The logic is that “The ‘Lancer,” while perhaps cool, is very dated and doesn’t even tell the casual observer what I do nowadays. People might think I’m anything from an SCA equestrian to a dermatologist (both possibilities actually came up in the conversation). While it was not unanimous, support for the change was overwhelming. I plan to retitle this page just before the end of 2022. No action is needed by subscribers and nothing else will change; same URL, same style of content, same maverickiness (perhaps even more, with the rep to uphold).
I do plan to focus a little more on work-related content rather than the self-indulgence I have shown over the decade and more I’ve been at this. At heart, it is supposed to be marketing. If I don’t use it for marketing at least some of the time, it’s not serving its designed aim. I look forward to your continued readership at The Editorial Maverick in 2023 and beyond, and I thank you for your past readership and support.
Hail the new.