For those few who have never looked at a writing website or read a how-to book, this paraphrases a Mark Twain quotation about adjectives, and is used to illustrate the accepted wisdom that adverbs are the Lex Luthors of the English language. If you let one of those evil, pace-sapping little fiends near your book, you might as well chuck the whole thing out the window and get a normal hobby, because publishers are going to laugh at you, my friend.
I can understand why this wisdom exists. I only have to look at The Most Embarrassing Story in the World, which I wrote when I was a sixth former and sent off to a competition in The Times. I was going to root it out and give you a choice quotation, but I can't find it. Honest, guv, I can't. Suffice to say it was full of people talking nonchalantly or angrily, and fires burning redly. Actually, it would still have been crap without the adverbs, but they didn't help.
Of course new writers - and plenty of not-so-new ones - overuse adverbs. That goes without saying (except, er, I've just said it), because none of us would take up writing in the first place if we didn't love using words. But I think “no adverbs” is too often presented as a blanket rule that doesn't take into account the context, the story, the narrator's background, the target market or the writer's voice.
It's a British habit, for example, to modify speech for the sake of ironic understatement or to avoid appearing too pushy. A strong British narrative voice might well make brilliant use of adverbs. They can also be good indicators of character. Someone who says: “I probably shouldn't, but may I possibly have another tiny sliver of that rather delicious cake?” is very different from someone who says “Stuff the diet, give it here.”
But what I like best about adverbs is the sense of freedom they give me during a first draft. It would be wonderful to have the knack of turning out perfect sentences first time, but for me it's more important to get the book's structure sorted out before going into fine detail with the prose. Adverbs are handy placeholders while I'm caught up in the excitement of finding out where the story is going. The careful crafting comes later, and it's true that I'll say goodbye to many adverbs and adjectives – but it's a fond goodbye after they've helped me along my way. I'm glad I didn't know about the no adverbs rule when I started writing – it would have made me agonise so much that I would never have finished anything.
Those opposed to adverbs sometimes admit that it's OK to leave in one or two provided they're working hard. Quite right ... but that's true of everything else in the book too, isn't it? I feel sorry for adverbs, being singled out as the villains like that. Like other parts of the language, they can be useful or redundant, perfectly or lazily placed. We should judge them individually on what they do, not what they are.
Picture: Huckleberry Finn, by E. W. Kemble, 1884