It might seem as though we mention overuse of adjectives and adverbs a lot. See Maryann Miller’s posts Adverbs Revisited back in June and Those Pesky Adverbs Again in July.
The truth is, we don't need to tell smart, intuitive readers every detail about a character’s appearance or clothing. They’ll fill in the blanks as long as the blanks are not critical to the story. You can describe a minor character (male) as 60ish with long black hair, bronze skin, and a leathery, weathered face, and the reader will know what your American Indian looks like. But if you say he's an Arapahoe elder, won't the reader form a similar mental picture without all the extra words?
Similarly, anything from a palace tower room to a battle scene may require description, but pay close attention to what is important to your story and what is not. Keep your eye out for unnecessary repetition—telling the reader the same thing in two or three different ways, using even more adjectives in the process.
Adverbs are even more likely candidates for elimination than adjectives. Many can be found by searching on the letters -ly. Examples of words you might find are silently, carefully, actually, and quietly. In the sentence, “He silently crept across the room in his stocking feet,” the word silently can be eliminated without changing the meaning, because the act of creeping implies secrecy and quiet.
Since not all adverbs and adjectives can found with a quick word search, this self-editing step may be combined with others in your sentence-by-sentence read. In addition to overuse and repetition, look for redundancies, such as emerald green eyes, or huge, cavernous room. And watch for quantifiers or indicators of size, which are often too general to be useful. Words such as large, small, big, tall, short, huge, some, many, and most are examples.
Not all adjectives and adverbs are bad, of course. In some cases, details are important to the story and may even be clues or red herrings in mysteries or thrillers. In other cases, a character's appearance might explain his odd behavior. Sometimes descriptive words are needed to create a mood. Even so, use adverbs and adjectives in moderation and be precise. Don't use two or three when one will do the job.
Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).