In Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Muave Ben Blatt conducted a mathematical analysis to test Hemingway at his own laws of prose writing, in particular the use of the adverb. In a recent blog post, Blatt states that “standout books indeed rely on fewer adverbs.” (That sentence could do without its adverb, indeed.) Furthermore he suggests that books that use the least adverbs have been the most successful, not just those that are classics and prize-winners, but also bestsellers.
Kumakana meets the standard set by the bestsellers.
It’s important to qualify what we are talking about when discussing adverbs. I often say to my writing (and English) students that adjectives and adverbs are not your friends; that ‘your’ writing will be much clearer without them. This view is supported not only by Hemingway, but by Stephen King, and Strunk and White, who advise in Elements of Style that adverbs tend to try and explain too much.
Stephen King is a little more specific. In On Writing: A memoir of the craft, he says, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” King is being quite specific, however, and is talking of the common practise of using adverbs that end in -ly. (I could have used ‘usually’ — an example of what we are talking about — in that sentence before ends but I doubt it would improve my meaning.)
Adverbs, I’m sure you are aware, are words that modify verbs. That is, they give ‘direction’ to the action being described by the verb. In most cases, the -ly adverb is concocted from an adjective: a slow object can become a slowly moving one; a soft voice can become a softly spoken one. What appears to happen is that a writer wanting to emphasise an action in some way feels it necessary to do so by directing the reader how they should perceive that action. The most commonplace use is after a speech tag: she said, softly; she moaned, loudly; he barked, angrily … and so on. In almost every case, a more direct active verb does a better job: she whispered; she wailed; he snapped …
Even better, much more lively writing comes from setting up how the action will be placed prior to the event. If an event is set up well, there is no need to direct the reader’s perception — and this applies to any event, no matter how trivial — because the reader will already be there, where the event is taking place. This is the nature of vivid writing.
Blatt compared the use of the -ly adverb in three categories of writing: award winners, best-sellers and fan-fiction. He downloaded 9000 novel-length fan-fiction stories (greater than 60,000 words) written between 2010 and 2014, which he compared to all the books ranked number one on the New York Times bestseller list since 2000. and the 100 most recent winners of major literary awards.
What he found was that the average use of -ly adverbs per 10,000 words of text in fan-fiction was 154, in bestsellers 115, and in award winners 114. What he finds shocking in this discovery, is “the fact that their use [-ly adverbs] is somehow correlated with quality on a measurable level—even when just the best writers are being examined … .”
One possible explanation for the overall trend we’re seeing is that adverbs are an indicator of a writer’s focus. An author writing with the clarity needed to describe vivid scenes and actions without adverbs, taking the time to whittle away the unnecessary words, might also be spending more time and effort making the rest of the text as perfect as possible. Or if one has a good editor, these words may be weeded out.
The “focus” hypothesis finds some support from the true master of writing without adverbs. And it’s not Hemingway. (Blatt)
This author, he says, is Toni Morrison. Hemingway averaged 80 adverbs per 10,000 words; Morrison 76.
But this figure is a little confusing. In Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, Blatt writes that Hemingway’s “adverb use is about 5.8% of all words”, which translates to 580 words per 10,000. He then goes on to say that measuring only the -ly adverbs, Hemingway uses 80 per 10,000 words.
How does Kumakana compare?
Kumakana has 86,864 words and a total of 999 -ly adverbs: 115 per 10,000.