The Data-Backed Case for Ditching Adverbs

Legendary authors really DO avoid them


Did You Listen When Your Teacher Told You Not to Use Adverbs?

Who knew that my teacher was talking to me? I thought she was sputtering empty platitudes to those kids who didn’t like to write, the ones who struggled to make word counts by putting in any word they could think of. I never even considered that I might be guilty of inserting too many qualifying words, and I certainly didn’t believe that over-writing was a sin.

I should have paid more attention to the stern warning: avoid adverbs.


Contrasting Beliefs About Adverbs

Anti-adverbists

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s, GASP!, too late.” — Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard Stephen King’s tirade against adverbs. King is not alone. Strunk & White, William Zinsser, Graham Greene, and Elmore Leonard have all decried adverbs. Concise, honed writing doesn’t need their clutter.

Pro-adverbists

Other writers profess that the adverb is essential, as Colin Dickey does in his essay in Slate:

“Adverbs, then, curtail and refine, but in doing so they can pick out the unexpected resonances, the hidden valences in the words they modify.”

Dickey’s essay, aptly titled “Lovingly, Stridently, Unapologetically,” argues that by pushing the “no adverb” theory, we eliminate the depth of thought that good writing evokes. It shouldn’t be about how fast we can consume words, but how much we can assimilate those words into our psyches.

“What’s striking about adverbs is the way in which they resist a treatment of language that sees it as a bare conveyance of information. We’re in a data-driven age, and that data drives us to force language into its most easily assimilated form. New apps arrive seemingly every week with the promise of increasing one’s reading rate and comprehension. Sites like Medium render articles in terms of the minutes it will take to consume them and are calculated on a formula that treats every word as having the same temporal value. The presumption here, of course, is that no sentence need be re-read, no allusion need be looked up, no thought need be untangled.”

Dickey suggests that anti-adverbists perpetuate the idea that all writing should be hard-hitting, compact, and concise, essentially aggressive with a fighting stance. Pro-adverbists believe that not all writing has to slap you across the face. Adverbs can add depth, complexity, and beauty, a seduction of sorts.


Who’s Right?

Neither side of the debate expects to obliterate the use of adverbs. Even anti-adverbists use an occasional “-ly” word, and research hasn’t found anyone whose adverb usage is zero. The crux of the matter is how many and how often you use them.

Know this: Based on hard science, your writing teacher was right. Data proves that the fewer the adverbs, the better the writing.


The Proof Is in the Data

Ben Blatt is a journalist and statistician who uses technology to analyze writing patterns. In his benchmark book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, Blatt showcases data generated from loading millions of words into computers for counting. Fascinating, fun, and informative, this book should be on the shelf of every writer interested in the “art” of writing and the conventions of modern publishing. Hard science is mixed with book lore, much like whiskey with water, into an inebriating brew, 100% proof of what you’ve been told.

Great authors don’t use as many -ly adverbs as the rest of us. If we follow their example, our writing will be, if not great, at least, better.


How Many Adverbs Does Stephen King Use?

Stephen King has been a vocal opponent of adverbs. Ben Blatt tests whether King practices what he preaches by loading all fifty-one of King’s novels into his computer. Using the Natural Language Toolkit, Blatt checks the number of adverbs. Talk about holding someone accountable.

Does Stephen King follow his own advice about eschewing adverbs? Yes. But not as much as other writers do.

Can you guess ten prominent writers, past and present, who use the fewest adverbs? You might be surprised at the “winners.” I’ll give you a hint, Stephen King was number nine on the list of top ten “anti-adverbists. Go ahead, take a stab at it before scrolling down.



Data Proves a Definite Correlation Between the Number of Adverbs and the Quality of a Work

Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve gives dozens of examples of renowned writers and their award-winning books, all deemed as higher quality than other works.

Three American writers won the Nobel Prize in Literature within a decade: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. In the works often considered to be their “best” works, less than 1% of the words were adverbs.

Hemingway

Hemingway scholars consider To Have and Have Not, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms to be some of his best novels. The adverb rate per 10,000 words is 52, 63, and 67 respectively.

Faulkner

The same pattern holds with Faulkner: As I Lay Dying scored 31 adverbs per 10,000; The Sound and the Fury, 42.

Steinbeck

Does the hypothesis hold for Steinbeck? Yes. The Grapes of Wrath scored a 79, ranking number three out of all his works for the least number of adverbs. Both Of Mice and Men and East of Eden had 87 adverbs per 10,000 words.

“Great” books and bestsellers

To test the hypothesis that the fewer the adverbs, the “greater” the book, Blatt compiles four different lists of the best of 20th Century Literature, sorting out the books that appeared on multiple lists as “great.” He ran the numbers on those, too.

The pattern held. More than 60% of the books considered by multiple sources to be “great” works had fewer than 50 adverbs per 10,000 words. Bestsellers averaged 115 per 10,000.

The best works in the world have low adverb counts.


Improve Your Writing by Counting Your Adverbs

Writers like to think we practice what we preach. But how often do we hold ourselves accountable? Have you tested yourself? How many adverbs do you use in 10,000 words? Or per 1,000 words?

Focus on decreasing the number of “-ly” adverbs by doing this:

  • For every piece you write, do a word count.

  • Copy and paste your article into your word processing program, and then do a “Find” function for “ly.”

  • Discover how many “ly” words you have per 1,000 words.

  • Review each instance and determine whether you can eliminate that word without detriment to your meaning.

  • If you aim for 6 (or fewer) adverbs per 1,000 words, you’ll be in the same range as Nobel Laureates in Literature.

  • Make it to 12 adverbs per 1,000 words, and you’ll be in the range of the average bestselling book in America.

Now I count adverbs as faithfully as I count carbs, making it a practice to “Find” those sly little devils. The results pointed me to my habitual use of the words “actually” and “basically.” (Ouch.) I am getting better, though. While I thought I had used three adverbs in writing this, “aptly,” “faithfully,” and “carelessly,” my word count showed how devious these critters can be.

I used two times as many adverbs as I thought I had. Years of habit let them carelessly comingle with my other words and slip out into the crowd on the page. This 1,389 word-article has six adverbs that weren’t used in quotes, titles, or as examples. “Certainly,” “essentially,” and “respectively,” snuck in without my notice.

Thanks to Ben Blatt and data science, I can guarantee that my writing will improve by reducing my adverbs. You can, too.

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