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.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, October 9 and 10, 2012

Plenty of ground and great stuff to cover today, so let’s jump right in.

CRAFT

Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) right when she says there aren’t very many articles on Foreshadowing out there in the blogosphere, so hers today, on that and “its black-sheep cousin, telegraphing,” is a very useful review of what they are, how they differ, and when to use or not use foreshadowing. Check it out.

KM Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) piece on How to Keep Your Fight Scenes Interesting is another one covering a rarely-discussed topic. As she notes, maybe it’s a surprise that a fight scene could be boring, but it can, and she offers a couple of easy techniques to keep your reader dodging those flailing fists along with your hero.

Our last selection today comes from Kelly Nichols, one half of the team who goes by the pen name P J Parrish. “Heed this advice now!” she warned desperately on The Kill Zone is a hoot, particularly if you, like me, are death on overusing adverbs and on dialog tags that explain too much. Tell us how many adverbs you found in Kelly’s post in the Comments below. Not all of them end in –ly, by the way.

WRITING TOOLS

Keith Cronin (@KeithCronin) loves how-to books, at least when they deal with writing. Who knew? Well, now we do, and in his Confessions of a “How-To” Junkie on Writer Unboxed he lists a baker’s half-dozen (OK, 7) of his favorites. Like me, you’ve probably read some of the books on his list but not others, and agree with some of his selections and not others. No matter, the main post and the comments are a good resource list for your own future reading.

Mike Fleming (@hiveword) guest posts about, or perhaps I should say, advertises his new—and free—online fiction organizing software called Hiveword on The Bookshelf Muse. I haven’t tried this tool and don’t know anyone who has, but if nothing else, Mike makes a case for planning before writing in Plan Ahead With The HiveWord Writing Tool.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND MARKETING

Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) provides some very practical and QuickTips for Contests & Giveaways on The Book Designer. These ideas take away some of the mystery about marketing one’s book on line.

THE WRITING LIFE

At a recent writers’ meeting, we got to talking about the member of one group who seemed to be using the group as a place to vent her frustrations and stresses with a part of her life. She claimed, the group leader said, to want to write a book about what she was going through. While it seemed at first that she wanted to approach Writing as Catharsis, we learned later that maybe that wasn’t her primary motivation. Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) takes on this topic in his latest post. While not all writing is, or needs to be, cathartic, if done for the right reasons, it can help a writer make sense of his or her world.

BUSINESS

Today’s last post is no surprise. Last time I wrote about the settlement between Google and some of the “Big 6” publishers over Google’s scanning of books. Yesterday Victoria Strauss (@VictoriaStrauss) posted on Writer Beware® Blogs Writers Slam Secrecy of Book Publishers’ Deal With Google. The post is mostly a copy of a joint press release from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America about their letter to the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, asking them to reopen an investigation on possible violations of federal law. The issue is still whether authors are going to be paid for their work if a reader accesses it through Google’s Book Search project. As I’ve noted before, this story is far from over.

Have you found any great stuff out there on the web? Share it in the Comments below.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, September 14-24 bonus edition

As they say on TV, we’re back, and time to finish getting caught up with the great stuff that came out during my 10 day hiatus. Let’s start to finish with a few more posts on

CRAFT

Adverbs. We’re told they’re almost entirely unnecessary, the nearly useless crutches of the totally hack writer who’s completely unable to come up with exactly the right word. And yet…KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) has a couple different takes on adverbs.

  • The first take, Why the Adverb Isn’t as Dead as Mark Twain Would Like discusses just that. But just for fun (and I’d like to think this was intentional on her part) see how many adverbs you can find in the transcript or catch in the video. Sometimes, indeed, a writer uses adverbs, um, purposefully.
  • And to make just that point, Neil Abbott (@NeilAbbott) writes a counterpoint post on WORDplay that tells you how to Use Adverbs to Create Music for Your Readers’ Ears. What??? Music? Sure, Abbott says. Pick an adverb for its sound or its symbolism. Either use adds something to the work. Then he offers this excellent test for whether an adverb is needed or not, taught him by his first creative writing professor: “How can (some antecedent [the verb]) be (its modifier [the adverb])?” If you can’t answer the question, delete the modifier.

Peter Salomon (@petersalomon) has an interesting post on The Bookshelf Muse in which he describes for the new author what to do after the first draft is done. His key: Attitude Is Everything. Attitude? About what? Well, lots of things but especially about the process of revision. A first draft is just that–the FIRST of many DRAFTS, not the final product. So, Salomon says, learning to love the revision process, after letting the draft sit for a while, is going to be the key to getting to a quality final.

Finally for this section is a thought-provoking piece by Lisa Cron (@LisaCron) on what she considers The Biggest Mistake Writers Make and How to Avoid It. The biggest mistake, eh? What might that be? According to Cron, it’s not know what a story is. Gee, you’d think that would be pretty obvious, and yet… Here’s Cron’s definition: “A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about).” (Italics hers.) “In other words,” she goes on, “story is internal, not external.” Note that she doesn’t say “literary stories,” but “story.” Any story, no matter what genre.

Right, then. Let’s move on to

BUSINESS

New Kill Zone contributor Boyd Morrison (@BoydMorrison) writes about The Movie Deal, what it takes to actually come to fruition, and what it may mean–or not–to the author if it does. A nice little reality check.

Now we’ll jump to a set of posts on

web sites and social media tools:

  • Staying with Jane (@JaneFriedman), she lists resources to help you with Building Your First Website. Note: this is a very WordPress-centric post, so if for some reason you want to use other resources, you can skip this post. But if you like what WordPress offers, this post is a rich source of information.
  • While we’re on the topic of WordPress, Pamela Wilson (@pamelaiwilson) of Big Brand System offers A Comprehensive Guide to Formatting Your WordPress Posts and Pages on Copyblogger, which I found thanks to Joel Friedlander’s (@jfbookman) The Book Designer blog. Wilson provides seven specific techniques, several of which I’m using in this very post.
  • Flitting back to Twitter, Ingrid Schneider (@Gridlocked) tells you how Hashtags can help… you make better use of this important Twitter tool. #GreatStuff!
  • Finally, for this section, Joel Friedlander introduces us to 3 More Ways Google Supercharges Your Searches. If you haven’t heard of Google’s domain search (which works only on Google’s Chrome browser, unfortunately) predictive search, and knowledge graph functions, this will be a valuable post for you.

And as I like to do, we’ll finish for today with a bit of

FUN

Jan O’Hara (@jan-ohara) and her commenters make sure you’ll Never Go Naked to Scrabble: Authorial Words Containing “WIP” on Writer Unboxed. For example: unwipped, horse-wipped, pussy-wipped (now what are you thinking???; it doesn’t, unfortunately, have anything to do with that great Saturday Night Live “product” promotion, the dessert topping for cats), wipped cream, wippersnappers, wipsawed…the list goes on…and on…and, well, what did you expect from a group of writers?

See you tomorrow with our resumed regular schedule.