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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Adjectives and Adverbs - What's Your Story?

'The serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be entirely explained by the adequate motivation of the characters or by a believable imitation of a way of life or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story for him to occupy himself with. This is not to say that he doesn't have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate reference or a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with them only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted.'
Flannery O'Connor - 1957

A large number of novice writers overuse adjectives and adverbs. They think that by doing so they bring their writing alive, making it more specific but almost in every case the opposite is true.
There are numerous reasons why writing in this way generally isn't a good idea. Here are some of them:
  • Less is more. When copious amounts of adjectives are used they distract the reader from the actual point the sentence is trying to make.
  • The reader can find it dull and boring to have every detail filled in for him. Readers love to use their imagination to picture the scene.
  • If the reader has to use their imagination to fill in blank spaces they are more likely to feel engaged with the story.
  • Writers who use a lot of adjectives and adverbs will more than likely use common ones, giving the writing a bland feel.
  • Too many adjectives and adverbs make awkward reading: they detract from the main point.
Taken from: The First Five Pages:  A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile.

This is the main reason why I usually stay clear of describing things in detail in my writing but I've never been a fan of descriptive writing anyway. I prefer to use more emotion in my writing rather than describing physical details. So, how do you prefer to write?


  1. I'm adherent to Ernest Hemingway's idea of "the thing left out," the point at which the vision you want to convey is seen by the reader without words there to describe it.

    He did it by first writing out everything, then removing and removing, bit by bit, until all that was left was the DNA of it. I try to do it at the outset, then add something in if the betas done see it.

  2. Good points. The first book I read on writing was Stephen King's, and he actually scared me in my use of adverbs. "Don't use them no matter what" seemed his mantra, at least until I found an old copy of Cujo, opened it to a random page, and found an adverb right there.

    I think the "less is more" approach, though the term a bit cliched, is appropriate. You're always going to need to describe something or someone's actions, but if you do it sparingly I doubt the reader will mind.

    There are so many phrases this comes out in, by the way. "Show us, don't tell us" is one of my favorites; in one of my recent blog entries I mentioned a scene in which a recent college grad could be shown to be such without being peppered with descriptions, using nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs.

    Good post; got me thinking.

  3. I'm glad this post stimulated your mind Stephen - and Pete - that's an interesting way of doing things. It goes to show that there isn't just one right path. Thanks for sharing.