“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Stephen King
Journalist Ben Blatt, in his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, takes a “by the numbers” look at a number of literary classics to see if statistics can reveal the secrets of what makes great writing.
As much fun as fact, his analysis revealed some quirky patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed, such as the best opening sentences to novels do tend to be short, James Patterson averages 160 clichés per 100,000 words (that’s 115 more than the revered Jane Austen) and Vladimir Nabokov used the word “mauve” 44 times more often than the average writer in the last two centuries. However, not all was fun and games. He did find several quantifiable trends.
The first chapter of his book deals with whether or not you should use -ly adverbs. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, which for lots of writers (myself included) is the book on writing, strongly admonishes writers not to use -ly adverbs. Many other authors and creative writing teachers also advise not to use an -ly adverb because it is often an unnecessary word and fails to be concise. For example, instead of writing, “He quickly ran,” you could write, “He sprinted.”
Blatt wanted to determine if this is good advice. If it is good advice, you’d expect that great authors actually do use them less and amateur writers use them more. He wanted to know, stylistically, if Stephen King followed his own advice and if it applies to other revered authors. This is what he found.
There is indeed evidence that authors like Hemingway, Morrison and Steinbeck — their best books, the ones that draw the most attention — are the books with the fewest amount of -ly adverbs. Also, if you compare amateur fiction and online writing with bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners of recent times, there is a clear discrepancy, with less -ly adverbs being used by published authors. While you can’t take out the -ly adverbs from an OK book and make it a great book, there is something to the fact that writers who are writing in a more direct manner do produce books that live the longest.
The answers to other questions of interest for word nerds and book lovers include: What are favorite authors’ favorite words? Do men and women write differently? Are bestsellers getting dumber over time? Can you judge a book by its cover?