Monday, August 25

My Analysis of 16 books: Stephen King is correct, the adverb is not your friend.

My Analysis of 16 books: Stephen King is correct, the adverb is not your friend.
I had a busy weekend.

What was I doing, you ask? I was combing through the contents of my digital bookshelf looking at the words, especially adverbs, my favorite authors (and others) used and how often they used them. 

I was curious whether genre authors tended to use adverbs more than their literary brethren.

Caveat


Before I discuss the results gleaned from my weekend of wordy exploration let me emphasize two things.

a. So far I’ve only analyzed sixteen books of the millions that exist. Also, most of the books I analyzed were chosen because I love them. As a result, my sample set is profoundly skewed.

I hope to add more books to this analysis in the future and that should help to ease--though not eliminate--this problem.

b. As you probably guessed, I didn’t sit down and read all these books, a pencil in one hand, a pad of paper in the other! I wrote a program. Although I spent all weekend coding (my apologies for not posting on Saturday as I had promised) my program is woefully primitive. In order to get up and running in a relatively short period of time I’ve used approximations. 

For example, ideally no words used in dialogue would be part of this analysis. I tried to take them out but couldn’t make it work in the time I had. 

The Results: Adverbs


There’s so much we could talk about but to start things off, let’s talk about adverbs that end in ‘ly.’

Stephen King famously said in “On Writing” that, “The adverb is not your friend.” He even italicized it. 

King confesses to using adverbs. His admonition is to use them sparingly and with thoughtful deliberation.

But a mischievous part of me wondered: Does Stephen King heed his own advice? And, even if he does now, was he always as conscientious?

I won’t make you wait for an answer. He was.

Though King never used many adverbs to begin with, throughout the years, book after book, he has continued his war with the adverb, gradually diminishing its presence in his work. 

Here are the highlights of my analysis:

Adverb Variety


William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” has the greatest variety of adverbs, while Stephen King’s “Under The Dome” has the least.

Adverb Frequency


Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” narrowly beat out E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” for the most adverbs used. Once again, Stephen King’s “Under The Dome,” had the fewest adverbs, though Lee Child’s “Never Go Back” came in a close second.

Only: the most used adverb


Hands down, “only” was the most used ‘ly’ adverb. (Of course, only isn’t just an adverb, it can also be used as an adjective or an informal conjunction.)

Further, the popularity of “only” isn’t just with genre authors. It was also the most common adverb in “Lord of the Flies” and “The Goldfinch.”

Of the 16 books I included in my analysis only three deviated from this pattern: 

E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey”
James Patterson’s “Along Came a Spider”
Jim Butcher’s “Storm Front”

For these books, “really” was the most common ‘ly’ adverb.

Really, Slowly, Suddenly


The second most common ‘ly’ adverb was “really.” This was true for eight of the sixteen books I looked at. Other popular choices were: 

- Probably (“Never Go Back,” by Lee Child, “Under The Dome,” by Stephen King), 
- Finally (“Along Came a Spider,” by James Patterson), 
- Suddenly (“Salem’s Lot,” by Stephen King),

Suddenly


“Suddenly” is one of the words we are often told not to use. Never. Ever. Which is why I was startled by what my analysis revealed. Six out of the sixteen books I looked at had “suddenly” as one of the most frequently used ‘ly’ adverbs: “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “It,” “Salem’s Lot,” “Twilight” and “Lord of the Flies.”

There is no question that “Lord of the Flies” is well written. Golding won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1984. My conclusion: it’s not so much which words are used as how the words are used. 

Don’t be a word snob!


It seems the pros use many of the words we’re told to stay away from. Yes, the pros use them sparingly, but these authors certainly haven’t eradicated them from their vocabulary. And neither should you! It isn’t what you have it’s how you use it.

Go easy on adverbs.


It seems Stephen King was right, the adverb is not your friend. One of the things which clearly separated “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”—two books which are widely held up as examples of books that are poorly written—from the rest was adverb use. Perhaps adverbs are a bit like salt, or anchovies. A little goes a long way.

Today I’ve concentrated on what we might call weak words, words we’re often advised to steer clear of. Next time I’d like to focus on strong words, words (strong verbs) we’re encouraged to use. Do the pros use more strong words or, again, is it just a matter of how the words are used?

By the way, just in case you’re curious, I did analyze my own writing and, compared to Stephen King, I’m definitely (see that? I just (ack!) can’t help myself) an adverb lover.

Thanks for reading. Cheers!

Photo credit: "Over Looking The Coastline" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

4 comments:

  1. Great post, Karen. Every time I catch myself using 'ly' I back up a reconsider. Your study gives me more confidence to use it when I feel it necessary. I look forward to reading your next post.

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    1. Thanks Martha! Yes, it's good to know that it isn't all just smoke and mirrors, that the advice is good.

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  2. You wrote a program to analyze novels? Over the weekend? Consider me seriously (oops!) impressed!

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    1. Hi Kim! Well, I'm not _that_ good. ;) The lions share was done over the weekend—I wrote the engine—but I've been at it all week. I'm almost done, I just have to finish up the module that hunts for cliches, finish the procedures that count instances of "said (adverb of manner)" and ... oh, right, there's the passive voice. So not 100% done, but I've written the classes and methods and procedures so most of the heavy lifting is over. ( Knock on wood )

      About "ly" adverbs, I was surprised that although professional authors are careful not to overdo it, they all use "ly" adverbs, even King. The trick, I think, is to use adverbs effectively, to create an impression. As Stephen King says, to choose the words that are both appropriate and colourful. And, sometimes, those words are adverbs! Seriously. ;)

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