Thursday, December 30, 2010

Weeding Out Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs Revisited

This post by Patricia Stoltey appeared on September 11, 2009. Why revisit it? Excessive wordiness draws a distinct line between ordinary writing and extraordinary writing. Of course, other factors contribute to taking a manuscript from mundane to magnificent, but this is so essential that it bears repeating. (Original post has been edited/condensed to respect time constraints this time of year.)

We often mention overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Why? We don't need to tell readers every detail. A minor male character, for example, may be described as 60ish with long black hair, bronze skin, and a leathery, weathered face. Or you can say he's an Arapahoe elder. The reader will form a similar mental picture.

Anything from a palace tower room to a battle scene may require description, but pay close attention to what is important. Unnecessary repetition—telling the reader the same thing in different ways—doesn’t move the story forward.

Adverbs, even more than adjectives, are candidates for elimination. Consider this sentence: “He silently crept across the room in his stocking feet.” “Silently” can be eliminated. “Crept” implies secrecy and quiet.

A quick word search may not locate all the adverbs and adjectives, so this self-editing step should be combined with others in your sentence-by-sentence read. Look for redundancies such as emerald green eyes, or huge, cavernous room. Watch for quantifiers or indicators of size— large, small, big, tall, short, huge, some, many, most—often too general to create a clear picture.
When used with discretion, adverbs and adjectives enhance good writing. Pertinent details may be clues in mysteries or thrillers. A character's appearance might explain his odd behavior. Descriptive words can create mood, but be precise. Using two or three is overkill when one will do the job.

The power of words lies in their effective use, not in their proliferation on the page. Thank you, Patricia!

Linda Lane chose this post by Patricia Stoltey because she encounters so much overuse of adjectives and adverbs in her editing work. She also writes novels and coaches writers. You may visit Linda at

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  1. I love this post. I do some pro bono freelance work helping out authors with their queries and partials and this is the most common overall advise I have. It is a great reminder for all writing!

  2. Self Editing for Fiction Writers has some great examples of overkill with adjectives and adverbs. Normally, one adjective should do the job, and the verb should carry enough meaning so the adverb isn't necessary. (Although JK Rowling manages to follow her own conventions--I think Stephen King counted them in one of her books, and there were 9000 of them in speaker tags. A novella's worth)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. As always, an excellent reminder. Too many adjectives is like saying the same thing twice.

  4. Thanks for resurrecting this one. I think we all need the reminder now and then. I find myself falling victim to the overuse sometimes.

  5. Excellent advice, Patricia. And thank you Linda for reminding us. Those small adjectives and adverbs are easy to breeze through on a re-read. Sometimes it's necessary to be consciously searching for them.

  6. Great reminder. It's amazing how easily you forget the basics.

  7. Great post, thanks. I'm editing at the moment and working on ridding my manuscript of unnecessary adverbs, so this was very timely.


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