John Le Carre's adverb advice missed the mark


David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name John Le Carre, passed away in December. The author of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” leaves behind a legacy of treasures not just for readers but for any writer who would learn from a master. Take, for example, this expert bit of writing wisdom attributed to Le Carre: “I don’t use adjectives if I can possibly get away with it. I don’t use adverbs. I try to make the verb do the work.”

As someone who spends her days fixing bad writing, I can tell you there’s gold in those words, especially the part about adverbs. Novice writers use adverbs hoping they’ll strengthen their writing, but their efforts usually boomerang. For example, which has greater impact? “The spy brutally and cruelly totally gunned down the traitor” or “The spy gunned down the traitor”?

Adverbs often weaken the information you’re trying to strengthen. So whenever you notice one in your writing, try taking it out. If the passage is better, leave it out. If not, put it back in. Make this a habit and you’ll become a better writer. Guaranteed.

But despite Le Carre’s obvious wisdom, there’s a problem with his advice: Le Carre, it seems, didn’t know what adverbs are. Turns out he used them all the time. Here's my column on the point that Le Carre missed about adverbs.

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