Are Rules Really Rules?

When an editor or critique partner dissects a manuscript, often he or she points out places where the author has “broken” some writer rule. One such common rule is to avoid using -ly adverbs.

But are these rules real?

They aren’t. However they do serve a purpose. Beginning writers often have similar weaknesses, and these “rules” provide a handy means of teaching writers to avoid those weaknesses. The problem comes when writers take the rules as … well, actual rules.

Rather than following a rule blindly, a writer would do well to understand the purpose behind it and adhere to the spirit of the rule.

In regards to the -ly adverb, as I understand it, the point is to steer writers in the direction of strong verbs rather than weak ones coupled with adverbs intended to give them substance. In other words, -ly adverbs don’t need to be excised as if they were a cancer. They do need to be used sparingly, however, as Christy Award nominee Tom Pawlik has done in his novel Vanish. Here’s an excerpt from a random page:

The lawyer was starting to lose it. He had obviously formed some kind of attachment to the kid. Maybe that was just part of being a father or because Conner’s own son had died or something.

Mitch, on the other hand, felt oddly detached from the whole situation. Sure, he felt bad, but it wasn’t like they could have done anything to prevent it. And it wasn’t like they could do anything about it now.

Besides, he had never really gotten over his suspicion that the kid might be connected to the aliens somehow. (emphasis mine)

Notice that the three adverbs do not serve to bolster a weak verb. Consequently, Mr. Pawlik hasn’t broken the spirit of the “rule,” and he’s been freed up to make use of perfectly good words that add strength to his character’s voice.

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1 Comment

Filed under Writing Rules

One response to “Are Rules Really Rules?

  1. Pingback: Word Discrimination, Part 1 | Rewrite, Reword, Rework

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