Adverbs: Less Is More

It’s common advice in writers’ workshops that adverbs should be replaced with active verbs whenever possible, and that you shouldn’t use too many adverbs.  But how many adverbs is too many?  I decided to find out.

My Methodology

I went to three respected literary magazines and randomly selected the following three stories:

Bogdonoff, Nathan. ”Indoor Animals.” New England Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (2018).

Li, Yiyun. “All Will Be Well.” New Yorker. 11 March 2019. 

Roth, Philip.  “Goodbye Columbus.” Paris Review, Issue 20, Autumn-Winter 1958-1959.

I copied and pasted the stories into Word, searched for “ly” and highlighted the adverbs in blue.  Then I copied the phrases or sentences in which they appeared into a separate document, and counted the number of occurrences (no, I am not always this OCD).

Then I averaged the three to find a good target number (okay, maybe I am always this OCD).  In all three instances, the number of adverbs represented less than 1% of the total number of words in the story.

What I Learned

Adverbs should represent less than 1% of your total word count.

When you do use an adverb, it should be to describe an action for which there is not a better verb.  Examples:

  • “I never called ahead, and rarely had to wait” – we don’t have a verb that expresses waiting as a rare occurrence.
  • “I may say it a bit too ringingly, too fast, too up-in-the-air, but I say it” – again, there’s no particular verb to express this particular style of speaking
  • “The fawn is peeing, steadily and unabashedly, all over the floor.” – I don’t mean to be gross, but we don’t have a polite verb for sustained or shame-free urination.

Sometimes, adverbs are used deliberately for effect:

  • “these were my most tiresome traits, and I used them tirelessly”
  • “They looked like two lambs, impeccably prepared by their elders as sacrifices to appease a beast or a god.”

Sometimes it seems to be about characterization or voice:

  • “She dove beautifully”
  • “The darker it got the more savagely did Brenda rush the net”
  • “I wasn’t entirely free from the demands of stating my opinions”

Adverbs also appear to be commonly used to express time:

  • rarely
  • finally
  • suddenly (which should be used sparingly, BTW)
  • recently, etc.

Click here to see the data set.

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