In a recent piece of light reading, I stumbled, almost literally, across this sentence.
"A stink beetle marched purposely through the dust on some mysterious errand, becoming a little black dot as it went off and disappeared. "
Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether any animal, let alone an insect, can be said said to have, in any meaningful way, purpose in what it is doing. Surely, if it cannot, the anthropomorphic sense of the human intellect can impose purpose on what is seen. It is a sentence like this, random, perhaps a little lazy, that disrupts what John Gardner was wont to call "the vivid and continuous dream." Indeed, upon stumbling over it, I came out of the description of the scene (so thoroughly that I had inordinate trouble relocating the sentence in the book) and thought for a while about "purposely." Is that even a word? If it is a word, should it be? What purpose does it have as a word that "purposefully" does not fulfill. Is it an adverbial appendage to indicate "on purpose," in which case, why? The fewer adverbs, the better in most prose, and this one strikes me as particularly pernicious, seeking to circumvent clearer and more careful articulations of the same idea. Adverbs reek of lazy writing. And in this case, after questioning "purposely" I had to wonder about a stink beetle marching. Had I not stumbled over "purposely," that stink beetle could have marched into the obscurity so richly deserved, as his only purpose was to give us an indication of passing time. But now, I wondered whether it was possible for a beetle to march, and if one could march what might that look like given six legs, and what might be the beat of such a march, "hut, two, three, four, five,six" or more waltz-like with a rhythm that doesn't seem to trial off to nowhere, "hut, two three, hut, two, three."
And so I was drawn out of the scene and into the world of bad grammar and its surreal possibilities.
It is the careful editor's work to assure that this does not happen to the reader. I don't care how popular, how influential, how best-selling the author, they can all use help from time to time to reshape the prose and make it meaningful and powerful. And in this case, all that was required was to use the proper adverbial form--"purposefully." By this simple alteration the beetle marches his way off the page and out of the reader's mind. Oh, perhaps the real pedant and stickler would question the marching, but for that person there is nothing to be done but to encourage him to retire to the well-padded chambers of the prose of Henry James where every article is fraught with meaning, every comma considered, withdrawn, reconsidered and inserted again. The dutiful editor need not trouble him- or herself with such a reader--they are self-selecting and would not choose a book of modern prose in any case.
I have now raked poor Preston and the momentary inattention of his much-overworked editor sufficiently to make the point. It takes only a small slip for the reader to be drawn out of the vivid and continuous dream, and if your story is not compelling, they may never be drawn back in again. I only hope that when my book goes to press I have the most vigorous, meticulous, and careful editor available. There is much to be said for the naive eye that sees what is written, not what is meant.