The Craft of #Writing: Beware the Adverb Nazis.
Posted On August 3, 2017
Pro-Writing Aid, an online program that analyzes your writing and gives you recommendations to improve it. As I was looking at a report on a piece it gave the number of adverbs and recommended that I remove three.
I must have missed this before but I do tend to use the old editor, instead of the report on the new editor.
With a word count and a number of allowed adverbs in hand, I calculated the percentage of adverbs that Pro-Writing Aid said I could use.
And I was shocked.
Those of us that ply the writer’s craft are aware of all the different pieces of advice from different writers, editors, and pundits that basically boil down to “use fewer words to express your thoughts.”
Adverbs, in particular, have received a bum rap. Stephen King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft:
The adverb is not your friend.
Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across…
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
Agreed. Too many adverbs do litter the field of your pretty words. Especially onerous are “said-bookism” adverbs where the character says something hurriedly, mildly or any other ly word. But the recommendation to reduce your adverb use has no heft unless you have a number behind it.
And then many adverbs are filler words, such as this list:
Some these words are prepositions, but in the function of modifying verbs, they are adverbs too. But they are also vague and filler words, with little context to add to the meaning of your test. Except in dialogue, because people are sloppy with their spoken words, your text is much cleaner and readable with fewer rather than more of them.
And what was Pro-Writing Aid’s recommendation?
Less than two percent of the total words in your manuscript.
I’m all for economy in words, but that is not how the other best-selling kids on the block are putting together their word salads.
When I began my research into lexical density, I compared best-selling author’s words and came up with the following:
As you can see, the use of adverbs among best-selling authors, those that go through a thorough in house editing process bop between just under six percent to seven percent with an average of hovering at six percent of the total word count of the representative samples used.
With all due respect to Mr. King, as a matter of practice, anything that hovers around six to seven percent in adverb use is the norm in recent works of best-selling fiction.
Is there any reason why you should jettison adverbs altogether? Will their use make your work unsellable and sully your reputation as a writer of worth.
Be careful. Yes. If you are using more than six to seven percent of your words as adverbs then you are hitting a danger zone and need to look at how you put together your words.
But 1.8 percent? That’s extreme. And it could drive you crazy exorcizing all those adverbs from your writing.
Hence my advice. Beware the word Nazis.
HOW YOU TOO CAN LOOK AT YOUR WORDS
There is a handy website called Analyze My Writing. I love this site. You can get all sort of statistics like the below on any piece you submit under 5,000 words. Like this:
What’s even better is that they will give you a sentence by sentence analysis of the lexical density of your prose and you can easily see what words to gut from your prose to improve your LD.
Cool. (Note: not a lexically dense word.)
Most likely, as newer writers enter the market tutored by the ilk of Mr. King, the adverb percentage in published works will drop. But for now, don’t worry slinging a few ly words in your prose. There is no need to submit to the adverb Nazis for the sake of scriberly correctness. 🙂
Image made with the Word Art.com word cloud creation tool.