The ly adverb stands as one flag to many editors that a writer lacks confidence. Stephen King makes the case in On Writing that if a scene is set well enough, if the characters are well-presented, a reader will know from context if a person shuts a door forcefully or gently or spoke harshly or any of these other unattractive adornments.
I’m inclined to agree, though like my previous blog on passive tense, I propose that weak prose comes from overuse rather than any use at all. The overuse of ly adverbs results in “purple prose,” a melodramatic stew of hack writing hell.
Richard Sherman, the fictional book editor in the classic comedy The Seven Year Itch, describes purple prose as “All that inwardly downwardly pulsating and back with the hair spilled across the pillow malarkey!” And I don’t think I can say it better myself. Every ly verb breaks the fiction rule that “less is more”.
Like passive verbs, ly adverbs should be high on a writer’s extermination list. 9 times out of 10–no, 99 times out of 100–the ly occurrence in a rough draft can be phrased better without it. That said, in spite of King’s claim, even he has snuck in the occasional adverb when it best suits his purpose, as do many other pros.
Here’s a topic for another blog that I need to touch upon now–one difference between a beginner and a pro is that the pro learns and masters the rules. They are aware of the rule, and may make the occasional, conscious choice to break the rule when they know it best serves the story.
RJ’s rule of thumb: Once a chapter, a few times in a novel, those instances can stand as deliberate choices if the writer can defend them to him or her self. Several times a page, sorry, that’s weak writing, and the writer has some work to do.
There’s a second conversation about where the ly should go in sentence, and the most famous split infinitive of pop culture, Roddenberry’s “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yes, I love it too, as much for The Shat’s delivery as the actual words, and having grown up with that phrase, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Written correctly, (see what I did there?) the phrase should be “….to go boldly where no man has gone before.” But no, I wouldn’t dream of changing it.
Another blog topic I may or may not tackle is on acceptable standards from long ago. (Beware the bad habits you can acquire from classic literature–like parenthetical asides, oh my!) So rather than quibble about the exceptions and the famous goofs, let’s just move forward and do better.