Saturday, January 28, 2012

Adverbs and Word Count

For any writer, especially those who are always reading internet articles about the craft of fiction (guilty as charged), we're all familiar with the age-old banes – adverbs and word count.

First and foremost, here's the only right answer for the appropriate word count for a novel.

It depends on the story and the genre.

Sorry, no secrets, no protocols, no right one answer.

My psychological thriller is 54,000 words. That's an ideal word count for a fast-paced mystery, and appropriate as a manuscript submission.

Let's pretend the story is the romance genre. 54,000 words would define it as a novella, an automatic rejection if submitted as a novel, and the story wouldn't have a snowball chance in hell.

It just depends.

For those who are writing the kind of story that calls for a higher word count, Sci-fi is a good example as it tends to have very high word counts, the common complaint is, how do I boost my word count?

This is where the other bane comes into play – adverbs.

I've seen many times from a variety of people (writers, editors, publishers) that you should avoid adverbs. For quite some time I wondered... why? Adverbs are easy. It's grammatically correct. What's the problem?

I understood early on that from a reader's perspective, sounding out “ly” every second word in their heads gets annoying rather fast. Also, too many adverbs looks unprofessional.

So, I concentrated on avoiding that “ly” factor, but I only understood it on a superficial level. Editors and publishers frown upon an abundance of adverbs, so don't do it. Right. But it took me awhile to realize that by not using adverbs, it boosted my word count without even being aware of the word count.

Here's what I've learned. Adverbs have the potential of replacing at least one whole sentence. Rather than using adverbs, I concentrated on describing things in detail. Adverbs are greedy little bastards that will eat up word count.

Random example:


He plainly saw there was clearly no way across the room, obviously. (Word count = 12)

No Adverbs

He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, but his vision was still blurred. After putting one foot down on the clean floor, the left shoe slipped forward and his shoulder crashed against the wall. He decided it was a bad day, turned around, and went back to bed. (Word count = 49)

As you can see from my rough example, I replaced a sentence with a paragraph just by not using any adverbs.

Weird, isn't it? Back when I first started writing, I really thought using a lot of adverbs would boost my word count, and now I see it's the opposite.

My final word on adverbs is that there's nothing wrong with them as long as it's the right use of grammar and they're not used as a substitute for crafting fictions. So, use adverbs sparingly.


  1. What an excellent post! I'm not a fan of adverbs at ALL but never heard it explained quite this way. Also, appreciate the breakdown of word count. I miss the really long involved 100,000+ novels of the past. About the only ones that do this now are fantasy sci fi.

  2. Thank you! The combination of adverbs and word count became a huge learning lesson for me, and I'm happy to share. I hope this post helps other writers :)


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