Most writers know that adverbs, which generally come in ‘ly’ form (swiftly, snidely, nervously), are considered the hallmark of overwritten and lazy prose, right? We've all heard this ad nauseam in our writing courses and critique groups.
Adverbs clutter writing.
In theory, if you choose a strong and appropriate verb, you do not need to add an adverb, especially one that carries the same meaning as the verb. Adverbs are often tacked on to dialogue tags to describe how something was said. But good dialogue does not need props. The words should convey the emotions of the speaker by themselves. Adverbs are often an indication that the writer has a habit of telling rather than showing.
There is a strong consensus that one should use adverbs sparingly.
One rule of thumb is to use no more than one adverb per 300 words of prose. In my early days of writing, after some challenging moments in critique groups with some overly enthusiastic critiquers who declared that all adverbs must go, I became concerned that I had an adverb problem and was not harsh enough with myself in eliminating them. I did a count of ly words in a 20-page chapter and was horrified to learn that I had 18 adverbs. Cue wallowing in a pit of despair—at least until I realized was that each page in that chapter was 300 words and therefore I did have one adverb per 300 words—fewer in fact. But even pointing that out did not satisfy some critiquers. They had been hammered with the concept that all adverbs are bad adverbs.
Should writers use no adverbs?
So were the critiquers right? It's easy to do a search on ‘ly’ in Word and expunge every last one of them from your piece. But does that result in better writing? I am not sure. Sometimes when dialogue words are necessarily banal because the person is being sarcastic or lacks affect, adverbs are the only way of conveying whether the speaker is being flippant or serious.
Adverb Counts in Popular Books
As always, I decided to go to the best source I have available—the books on my bedside table. I also wanted to check and see if there was a difference between literary fiction and genre fiction.
Literary Fiction Results
This time the lucky literary fiction contenders included: The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby, The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Constant Princesss by Philippa Gregory, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Random number generator says start on page 128. I read five pages of each.
Adverb use ranged from one adverb in five pages for The Road to six for The Bishop’s Man. The average was four adverbs in five pages.
Given that the average novel page contains 250 words, this is about 1 adverb per 300 words. The adverbs were most often used to modify ‘said’.
Genre Fiction Results
Genre fiction contenders included The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Doctored Evidence by Donna Leon, Hot Six by Janet Evanovich, Chesapeake Blue by Nora Roberts and How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny. I did the same thing as with the literary fiction books—started on page 128 and read five pages.
Adverb use ranged from one adverb in five pages in Chesapeake Blue (go Nora!) to nine in How the Light Gets In. The average was six adverbs in five pages. So a bit higher than in the literary fiction novels. These adverbs were utilized most commonly in dialogue.
Writers use adverbs to add color to their writing and reflect how people actually speak—and people occasionally use adverbs.
Although it is helpful to reduce the use of adverbs, it's not necessary to strip them entirely from your writing.
I am still conscious of ‘ly’ words in my own writing as part of my editing process, and consider stronger verbs as alternatives. However don't listen to critiquers who tell you that they are forbidden and don't be haunted by the occasional use of an adverb.
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