Friday, September 11, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Weeding Out Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs

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.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.


  1. Great advice, Patricia. Some books call for more descriptions and details than others. Thrillers tend to go into minute detail on weaponry, but it's done with a purpose - to establish a character's expertise. Plus, it's usually done without all the adjectives. ;-)

    Straight From Hel

  2. Great post! That's the final two passes for me--adverbs and adjectives... like looking for nits in hair. But it must be done!

  3. This one is tough for artists-turned-writers who want to describe every shade of color just so, all the tiniest details, and the exact level of light. We live our lives in these nuances and believe everyone else does, too. Not so. Such a rude awakening! ;)

    Another good bit of advice, Patricia. You and Elsa have been most helpful this week. Thanks.


  4. Thanks for the great reminder about adverbs and adjectives. You had some good examples to help clarify and that is always so good.

  5. Thanks for the tips. It's always good to be reminded.

  6. Interesting. I found myself wondering though, to what extent do you also have to know your readers. Describing him as an Arapahoe elder wouldn't have given me anything close to the right picture because I didn't grow up in the US.

  7. I also prefer reading books with the "less-is-more" approach to description but one of my bugbears is authors who come in later on and give a sudden description of a character that is totally different to the way I've imagined him for the past 50 pages. Your example reminded me of a Stephen King book I read recently imagining a character as North American Indian due to the way his spiritual/mystical work was described only to find out near the end that he was supposed to be Mormon! You would've thought an important detail like that would be mentioned up front... or maybe I missed it.

  8. Just in case anyone is checking back to read comments, I wanted to let you know I was working as a volunteer today at the Colorado Gold Writers Conference in Denver, and will be doing so again tomorrow.

    The last two commenters made good points: you must consider the audience in making decisions about how much description to include, and character descriptions, if to be given at all, should be presented before the reader has a chance to form an alternative picture of the character.

    Even so, I still recommend using as few adjectives and adverbs as possible, and choosing the ones you do use with great care.

  9. When I first started writing, I used too many adjective and adverbs. They upped the page count, but did nothing for the story.

    Some of them still creep in, but I usually figure out which are the most important after a few edits.

    Morgan Mandel


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