Adverbs and Adjectives: The Delete-Button Duo
It seems as if there has been a sudden resurgence over the debate of the use of adverbs and adjectives in writing. Wasn’t it years ago when editors and readers alike clamored for the death of all adverbs? And yet, here is it again, found in style textbooks, agency websites, and even breaking the fourth wall by being mentioned in modern novels (1Q84, anyone?). Even Stephen King has been quoted saying, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.”
This is actually the reason why I decided to research this, seemingly, controversial issue.
Adverbs and Adjectives are considered filler words. Adverbs help add description to a sentence and modify nouns, adjectives, or even other adverbs by describing the how, when, why, or even the where of these words. Adjectives describe nouns, and are most often the “culprit” that writers seek to edit.
Common Adverbs: carefully, quickly, silently, then, now, because, in order to, nowhere, out, very, extremely, really
Common Adjectives: good, old, different, small, long, great, first
My first reaction to this “delete on sight” command was refusal. I feel like most authors find their voice and their style in descriptors, and even set the tone of a novel with specific word choice. How else do you paint the feel of the world for the audience? The word is the vessel through which our readers can travel to our worlds. Why would we want to limit our style or technical options? But, as I began to think further on the topic, I found it has merit.
Many writers are not fantasy authors, nor do they need to describe worlds or people in such grandiose fashion. And, too often, authors take adverb and adjective use to unnecessary levels. I’ve discovered this more often in fiction, where authors tend to drag on a description about something that either 1) does nothing to further the plot of the story, therefore damaging the readability of the novel, or 2) does not accurately capture the feel of the story or the characters. The first point is easy to spot for a reader, so they easily skip over certain passages. As authors we DEFINITELY don’t want this to happen, because it discourages our readers and prevents their immersion into the story. The second point, however, is what I believe editors really are trying to nix, because it creates discontinuity and shoddy storytelling. A lot of authors rely heavily on the substance of the story, not the storytelling, to get their message along, and editors are understandable flummoxed on how to fix this. It’s understandable that they’ve found it’s easier to give a blanketed rule (Kill Adverbs and Adjectives on Sight!). And in response, many writers take this as a green flag to go completely Hemingway and change the style of their novels.
I say, be careful when using adverbs and be deliberate when using adjectives. Don’t just throw them around willy-nilly because you need to make sure the reader knows that, “not only do the leaves on the trees have gold flecks on them, but they also have blue-ish veins that look purple in the moonlight and can be mistaken as poisonous.” Trust your reader to use their imagination and say instead, “at night, the leaves metallic sheen was lost against its dark veins.” And I say be careful with adverbs, because some of them are actually quite important. They drive home ideas and important differentiations that the reader could otherwise misconstrue. Is it more likely that “Andy finished the book first, angering Conner,” or is it more likely that “Andy finished the book, angering Conner.” You have to look at the context of the story being told and the characters.
All in all, superfluous words make for slow reading and do not allow the reader to enter the world that you made for them. Know your story and your characters and do not add what is not necessary. Don’t be afraid of editing your work, chances are you will forgot those words had ever been there after a second read through.
What about you guys? Do you find it hard to identify adverbs and adjectives? Does hitting that “delete” button cause more anxiety than it should? What are your most overused adverbs and adjectives?
Thanks for reading my first blog post on writing tips/discussion. I can’t wait to talk to you guys again soon 🙂