Monday, August 13, 2012

Building Blocks: Use of Adjectives and Adverbs

The more you write, the more sophisticated you become in your use of language, unless you're not paying attention. :-) Even writers who've written several books, however, often get a little lazy and fall back on bad habits from their early days, and that can be deadly to the quality of the writing. A common problem is one that is often covered: overuse of adjectives and adverbs, which translates into sloppy sentences that are not tight, and drag the momentum of the story away from its essence.

It's worth it to remind ourselves of the basics on this issue. Literary agent Noah Lukeman, in his book on writing, The First Five Pages, covers this topic at the outset of his book. Below is a list of the points he makes, and an exercise he suggests that is great for all writers to go back to with every book they write, in my opinion. Combine these guidelines with Priscilla Long's suggestions for using concrete nouns and verbs (see July 23 post), and you've got what you need to be sure your writing style will be strong enough to catch the attention of discerning readers.

Lukeman's reasons why manuscripts heavy on adjectives and adverbs don't usually work:

  • More is less. A string of adjectives or adverbs can confuse the reader.
  • It can be demeaning to the reader when the writer fills in every last detail for him.
  • It is often preferable to leave things blank and force the reader to use his imagination (and thereby become more involved in the manuscript).
  • Writers who overuse adjectives/adverbs tend to use common ones . . . and the hackneyed result is immediately apparent.
  • Adjectives and adverbs often, ironically, weaken their subjects.
  • The overall effect of (too many) adjectives and adverbs and the inevitable commas in between makes for very slow, awkward reading.

Lukeman's suggestions for overcoming this problem:

  • Cut back your usage. When deciding where to cut, there are three places to look: 1) where more than one adjective or adverb is used. Remove all but one. 2) where commonplace or cliché adjectives are used—a "hot" day, for instance. Cut these. 3) where strong or unusual nouns or verbs have been used (if strong enough, they don't need to be modified by an adjective or adverb).
  • Replace your existing adjectives and adverbs with more unusual ones. (The existing ones are those that remain after you've cut the unneeded ones.)
  • Strengthen your nouns and verbs so you don't need adjectives and adverbs. (See my July 23 post)
  • Occasionally substitute a comparison (analogy, simile, or metaphor) for an adjective. You can say "He ran his office like a ship" instead of "He ran a clean, well-organized office," for example.

And here's a paraphrase of the eye-opening, easy exercise Lukeman suggests:

  • Remove every adjective and adverb from your first page, and list them separately. Now read the first page aloud (without the adjectives and adverbs). . . . Are your major ideas still conveyed without them?
  • Look at your list of removed adjectives and adverbs and cross out those that are common or cliché. Beside each crossed out word write a less expected replacement. Insert the replacements in your page and read aloud. How does it sound?
  • Remove every noun or verb from your manuscript's first page and list them separately. Cross out each that is commonplace or cliché, and write a less expected replacement. Insert replacements in your first page and read aloud. How does it sound now?
  • Finally, rewrite the first page completely, using no adjectives or adverbs at all. See how this forces you to come up with strong nouns and verbs. Can any of these be incorporated?
Once you've done this exercise, pick and choose which changes you want to use for a stronger, better first page.

Obviously, Lukeman is not saying to get rid of modifiers altogether. (I notice he used quite a few adjectives and adverbs himself in his discussion.) Not overusing, and selecting less common modifiers can make a huge, positive difference, though. Do you love using great adjectives and adverbs, or do you love cutting them? Do you have suggestions/favorites to share?


  1. I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles.

    1. Thank you, Steve. It's fun to dig into these topics. I see from your blog that you're a grammarian. Nice!

  2. I love that you share these writing tidbits. Sometimes the more you write the lazier you get about the things you thought you knew.

  3. Thanks for these great tips. And... I love Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages. A book that everyone should read.
    Thanks for another great post.

    1. Thanks, Karlene. Lukeman/basics. Can't separate them!