This has proved to be one of my most popular posts with many people kindly commenting on how useful it is – so I thought it was worth sharing again.
The use of adverbs and adjectives is an issue for many writers. Many overuse them in the hope of making their writing seem more interesting, more descriptive. And while I’m not at all advocating that you cut all adverbs and adjectives out of your writing, what I have seen over and over again in the work that I edit, is that both are often added for no discernible reason. This is often, it seems to me, because a writer is trying really hard to set a scene, to draw a reader in. They can see the scene, the characters in their head and they want to convey everything that’s there. And they want to show that they can write, that they have a wide vocabulary. But unfortunately, these adverbs and adjectives often add nothing to the scenes in which they appear.
So how do you know what adjectives and adverbs to cut?
Let’s look at adverbs first.
Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something, then is it the right one to use?
John walked quickly down the street.
You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.
John hurried down the street.
One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.
She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.
Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:
She accepted that her work needed editing.
(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)
There are also adverbs that are totally redundant – like ‘totally’ in this sentence!
The fire alarm rang loudly.
How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.
A well-placed, strong and evocative adjective can add great detail to a word, phrase or scene. However, too often they come across as contrived and unnecessary.
The beautiful, bubbling river sparkled in the golden sunlight, its silvery ripples reflecting the brilliant, blazing rays that played on the shivering surface.
Too much, far too much. What’s wrong with:
The river sparkled in the sunlight, silvery rays playing on the shivering surface.
(Though, to be honest, that’s still too much).
And be very careful of ‘broad’ adjectives like ‘beautiful’ in the first sentence. ‘Beautiful’, ‘nice’, ‘wonderful’, etc.are broad terms – these words are subjective and mean different things to different people. They add nothing and are best avoided, except in dialogue.
Also be wary of the thesaurus. It is useful and can help you describe things in a fresh, new way. But be careful. Very careful.
The use of adjectives and adverbs is a contentious issue – I’d love to know your thoughts.