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.
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:
I promised my friend KL that I’d give this journal a local shout-out, so here’s some info on this unique publication and reading opportunity.
Rain Shadow Review is the brainchild of Arizona poet Richard Shelton, whose involvement with prison writing workshops goes all the way back to 1974. The writing in the magazine comes from current or former inmates of the Arizona prison system.
The last three issues of Rain Shadow Review have been edited by UA professor Erec Toso.
Online, you’ll find intriguing poems, truly stunning artwork, and a gripping prose piece about SIDS by Steven P. Arthur.
If you stop by the University of Arizona Poetry Center Library, you can pick up your latest copy of Rain Shadow Review – you should, it’s free and it’s good reading.
If you’ve ever been in jail or prison, you could become a contributor to this magazine. Visit online at https://rainshadowreview.com/ or mail a COPY of your best writing to:
Rain Shadow Review P.O. Box 85462 Tucson, AZ 85754-5462
To grow as a writer, you know that you have to do two things: read, and write. Without accountability, reading seriously or writing regularly can be a real challenge.
One easy way to gain accountability and to force yourself to read outside your genre is to join a local book club. I belong to the “Lit Guild,” which is a student club sponsored by Cochise College and open to all members of the community. Every semester there’s a different theme. In the past we’ve read dystopian novels, magical realism, and books about trains, to name a few topics.
This semester, the theme is Literary Memoirs. Here’s the skinny on upcoming meetings:
Friday, February 15th, 11:30 AM-1:00 PM The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy Room 901, Cochise College, Sierra Vista Campus (901 N. Columbo Ave).
Friday, March 22nd, 11:30 AM-1:00 PM Educated by Tara Westover. Room 901, Cochise College, Sierra Vista Campus (901 N. Columbo Ave).
Friday, April 26th, 11:30 AM-1:00 PM Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Off-campus meeting at Get Lit. Bookstore, (1502 E. Fry Blvd. Sierra Vista)
Club facilitator Mary Coyle says, “Roxanna at Get Lit Books carries our titles, often at a discount. Please support Sierra Vista’s great little bookstore! Go to http://www.getlitbooks.com or call (520) 843-0101.”
For more information, contact Mary Coyle at <email@example.com>.