Adjectives and Adverbs

Posted June 8, 2010 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Writing / 8 Comments

When we are at school, most English teachers taught us the importance of adjectives and adverbs. They taught us to try and be as descriptive as possible. Now as writers, we need to break this habit; but why? Here is what I’ve discovered.

Both the adjective and adverb are considered modifiers (adjectives modify nouns and adverbs, verbs). Typically they sound like good words to use but I have found, and most others may have also found, that they seem to drag out the sentence. I’m not saying to try and get rid of all adjectives and adverbs, just try to limit to only one modifier per noun or verb and if possible remove them all together. The reason I’ve found for this is that it just makes the writing tighter and flow more eloquently.

I know it’s hard to break the habit, but I do believe it will help your writing in the long run. Some things to remember and try;

  • In your writing try removing all adverbs and adjectives and see if the story still remains;
  • If needing an adjective or adverb, keep the most important one;
  • Experiment with your sentences. You will find interesting ways to tell the story and make the writing flow;
  • There is a common used saying when coming to writing “show, don’t tell”. The readers are usually smart enough to know what is happening (either by imagination or what has been said), eg; if it is a storm they will know it will also be dark, cold and wet. So at some point you will need to let the readers imagination do some of the work too.

8 responses to “Adjectives and Adverbs

  1. Shirezu

    I don’t agree. Nouns and verbs may be the meat but adverbs and adjectives are the flavour. It’s like painting a picture but leaving the colour out, only an outline remains. Yes they can be overused which can be bad but if not used the text is dry and boring.

    You say a lot of it should be left to te imagination. In some places that’s fine but remember a writer is trying to create a vision in your head. They are trying to capture their thoughts in words in a hope you see the same thing. Modifiers are needed to do that well. By removing half the English language from your work you’re not telling the full story.

    • I know you will need to use adjectives and adverbs but they aren’t the flavour of the story, there is plenty of ways to be descriptive without over using adjectives and adverbs, Hemingway was a master at that.

  2. Adverbs and adjectives are tools, and as such, are perfectly fine when used in moderation. The problem is when writers overuse them and clutter sentences.

    A good trick is to read outloud and listen to the cadence of a sentence.

  3. You can usually find more powerful ways to phrase things than by tacking on an adverb. Sure you need adjectives here and there, but I like to let the reader fill in little details on their own. Everyone will build a picture in their own mind of what a scene or character looks like. You can talk about a “luxurious apartment” or you can describe every stick of furniture in agonizing, snooze-inducing detail. Mention a Louis XVI armoir, and you get the point across. As you can imagine, I tend to be somewhat sparse in my descriptions.

    Read the paragraph on description from this article on “What Agents Hate”

  4. That was an interesting read, Thanks.

    I especially like the following quote;

    “In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom—and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon—not admiring the view.”
    —Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

  5. Yup, well, that’s because you and I don’t read romance/erotica.

    I’ve read studies about this, or more specifically about rape fantasies. They are not about enjoying being raped, per se, but it is a way for a woman to experience sex with someone new, other than her long-term partner/husband without guilt. Women are so programmed that sex is wrong and dirty, this is the only way they can justify even thinking about having sex with someone else. Consequently, it’s an often used trope in that kind of literature.

  6. maryjblog

    Gypsy’s advice re: reading out loud is really important; so is Chazz’s, to omit the words and see if the sentence has the same impact. Any word, any part of speech can make a mess if overused, or used incorrectly. I think weak writers sometimes have this idea that they can solve a problem by throwing words at it, rather than taking care with the ORDER in which the words are placed. You see the same thing from blowhards who think it’s automatically more “educated” to use a 4-syllable word when 2 syllables will do.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.