Should we be writing beautifully? Or just writing?

Last month we met a business writer who’d been taught never to use adverbs (-ly words) at work.

This rule comes from the world of fiction writing, where the modern novelist is looking for page-turning pace, and adverbs are seen as baggage and clutter.

There are creative writing course tutors who’ll take a red pen to every word that ends in `ly’. One even told us that we ought to do 20 press-ups as punishment for every adverb we put in our writing, or rip them out. That way, he said, it focuses your mind on whether or not they’re worth keeping.

Why is the harmless adverb scathingly derided? Here’s that sentence again, this time without the adverb: Why is the harmless adverb derided?

Writers use them to add atmosphere and emotion, to help readers picture the scene. But a lot of the time they’re redundant. They add nothing but an extra word. And there are people who believe that there’s no room in business writing for atmosphere and emotion at all.


He ran quickly along the street.

It was absolutely fascinating.

I don’t actually like chocolate.

‘Look!’ he shouted loudly.

Compare those to:

He ran along the street.

It was fascinating.

I don’t like chocolate.

‘Look!’ he shouted.

Two sets of sentences which say the same thing, one more fussily than the other. You don’t need adverbs when they state the obvious.

And they creep into ad copy to form some irritating clichés:

It corners smoothly even at 70 mph.

Our apricot cleanser gently and effectively removes all traces of make up.

Let’s be honest. Often, we could manage without them. But sometimes, the odd adverb is handy. Particularly when it says the opposite of what you’d expect.

How about this:

Eric spent his pocket money on a present for his sister.

Eric reluctantly spent his pocket money on a present for his sister.

There we’ve got one that changes our meaning. It adds something valuable to the picture. That’s why we think that adverbs should be kept in check, but never banned.

One more unmatched pair to finish:

Adverbs should be used in business writing.

Adverbs should be used appropriately in business writing.