Which… isn’t exactly what they said. They’re like the Paul Harvey’s of writing instruction. Well, they’re like half of a Paul Harvey. They kind of forget to include that famous “rest of the story.”
You wonder if those who keep parroting this advice on adverbs and adjectives have read what these guys actually said. All of those folks quoted are good, if not, great writers and teachers. Makes sense that what they’re telling us is sound, right? Well, if we actually read what they said precisely. Nary a one of them said: Don’t use adverbs and adjectives. Just about every one of them had a disclaimer. Gardner: “…or the sharpest tools in the novelist’s toolbox.” Zinsser: “Most adjectives…” Notice he didn’t say all; he said most. That sort of means that some adjectives and adverbs work and work well. Zinsser also went on to say: “…they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think…” And, that’s the source of the problem. Writing instructors who pass on these “rules” haven’t stopped to think themselves perhaps, so they’re incapable of recognizing students as being any different from themselves. Writers who… don’t stop to think.
What each of these guys is maintaining is that adverbs and adjectives are fine to use… if used judiciously. With originality. That’s the… rest of the story. The important part that never seems to be delivered in classes and books.
I took a lot of the information here from three sources. One, from the best writer’s textbook ever written, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction and from a 2006 article by Ben Yagoda in the NY Times, which you can accesss at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/11/books/chapters/0311-1st-yago.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2 . Also, some of the material here can be found in my writing book, Finding Your Voice.
Used thoughtfully (which some of these writing advisors don’t think you’re capable of, alas), adverbs and adjectives can sharpen and illuminate your prose magnificently, as in the following examples:
"In those trusses I saw a reminder of a country-fairgrounds grandstand, or perhaps the penumbrous bones of the Polo Grounds roof." -Roger Angell on the gridwork at the new baseball stadium in Baltimore
"She shook her head, and a smell of alembicated summer touched his nostrils." -Sylvia Townsend Warner
"The Sunday's events repeated themselves in his mind, bending like nacreous flakes around a central infrangible irritant." -John Updike
"He had the surface involvement-style-while I had the deep-structural, immobilizing synovial ballooning of a superior mind." -Nicholson Baker on Updike
"The great out-sticking ears that frame his face like cartilaginous quotation marks." -Michael Kelly on Ross Perot