Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Data journalist Ben Blatt has used his quantitative approach to analyzing classic novels and 20th century best-sellers to test whether some of the common advice writers receive is reflected in successful books. (Yesterday, I reported some of his findings about differences in writing by and about men and women.)

Numerous authorities—most notably, Stephen King—advise against using –ly adverbs. King goes so far as to say the road to hell is paved with them. Instead, these authorities say, find a more robust verb that can carry your meaning on its own, unaided. Blatt’s example is, instead of “He ran quickly,” say, “He sprinted.” Saves words too.

As it turns out, Blatt’s research reveals that more accomplished writers do tend to rely on good strong verbs instead of adverbial modifiers. In a chart, he shows that Hemingway used 80 –ly adverbs per 10,000 words, where as E.L James (author of the 50 Shades books) used almost twice as many, 155 per 10,000. Here’s one of hers: “Mentally girding my loins, I head into the hotel.” A bit hard to visualize there.

Another precept Blatt tested was Elmore Leonard’s avoid-the-banal advice: “Never open a book with weather.” Yet best-seller Danielle Steele starts her books with weather about half the time (46 percent), and even Leonard has done it, maybe twice in 45 novels. By contrast, many literary authors (Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and others) never do so, across dozens of books.

Parlor Game

Here’s a parlor game for you, based on Blatt’s findings (his book has many more). What are the three favorite words of these authors? Can any of your erudite friends come close?

  • Jane Austen
  • Truman Capote
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • K. Rowling
  • Mark Twain

And here are the answers: JA (civility, fancying, imprudence); TC (clutter, zoo, geranium—bet you didn’t get that one!); EH (concierge, astern, cognac); JKR (wand, wizard, potion); and MT (hearted, shucks, satan).

You can order the books below (affiliate link):

Further Delight

While researching this article, I ran across this fun list of 100 Exquisite Adjectives.

7 thoughts on “Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

  1. Although in the short opening paragraph of Heart of Darkness, Conrad does state that “the wind was nearly calm.” In the following one, describing the sea-reach of the Thames, he goes on to say “the sea and sky were welded together without a joint.” He notes that “A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness.” And he concludes the paragraph, and his description of the setting, with the observation that the air “seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.” So there can be some literary value in invoking the weather, and the atmosphere.

    • Good ones! Not to mention the unforgettable opening of Bleak House: London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
      Perhaps Leonard was thinking more about the mystery/crime genre and was expressing a visceral aversion to “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”

  2. I suspect Stephen King came up with his famous line “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” because he regretted using them so often in his own early books. The first sentence of his 1980 novel “Firestarter” is “‘Daddy, I’m tired,’ the little girl in the red pants and the green blouse said fretfully.” (King would later advise against using adverbs after the word “said” in particular.)

    Despite the orthodoxy that has grown up against the use of adverbs, they are part of our language and serve a purpose, and all writers use them. Using them more often or less often is not the measure of good writing. Lawrence Durrell, one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century, had no qualms about using adverbs, and his books are packed with them. Hemingway rarely used adverbs or adjectives in his early books as part of a conscious effort at a spare, minimalist style that was considered innovative and radical at the time. (By the time of “To Have and Have Not” in 1937, he had relaxed enough to write “‘Go to hell,’ said the big-faced man thickly.”)

    Today, writers go so far out of their way to avoid using adverbs — for fear of being ridiculed by their writer peers (readers don’t care) — that they add words rather than subtract them: “He looked at her with anger” (six words) instead of the more economical “He looked at her angrily” (five words). Verbs have more power than nouns.

    That said, I try not to use adverbs too often in my own writing, especially in fiction — not because I think they violate someone’s rules, or because a better verb could be found, but rather because of the sound they make. Adding “ly” to the end of a word can create a phonic stumble (but not always: “annoyingly” is clumsy; “softly” is melodious). Because writing is music, after all, with its own melodies and rhythms.

    One of the more awkward examples of adverb use, not just because of that tripping sound but also due to unnecessary phonetic repetition, occurs in the novel “Freedom” by the much-lauded author Jonathan Franzen, when he writes “He regarded her guardedly.”

    Maybe we should all regard adverbs with the same caution.

    • “Ouch!” to Franzen. I think the question with -ly adverbs is the same one that has to be asked all the time. Is this the best (in terms of interest, clarity, precision, and, as you say, rhythm) word to use right here in this spot? If you’ve said “clearly” three times on a page, as I am prone to doing, then the fourth time it’s not the “best” choice, even if it conveys they correct meaning. I think you’d enjoy Blatt’s book, Greg. Very stimulating!

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