Gilding the Lily: Adjectives and Adverbs are not Always a Writer’s Best Friends

gilding the lilyI’ve had writing instructors tell me in the past to NEVER use adjectives or adverbs because they weaken the prose and become distracting to the reader. They’ve suggested that strong nouns and verbs ALWAYS work better than reliance on the qualification provided by adjectives and adverbs.

Not many books you pick up in the library or the bookstore have NO adjectives or adverbs in them, so it’s not true that the best writers never use these kinds of words.

However, it’s an interesting exercise to try and write without using these words as a crutch. Take any passage you’ve written recently and see if you can rewrite the whole thing with no adjectives or adverbs. It’s not easy, is it? You could try first removing the adjectives and adverbs, and then seeing how bland the prose is. THEN, try to change the nouns and verbs so they’re doing more of the heavy-lifting.

Qualifying words like adjectives and adverbs can add color and flavor to your prose if they’re used sparingly and wisely. Try not to use too many of them, particularly to qualify a single noun or verb. Make the writing as simple and direct as it can be.

Consider the following example (and so as not to pick on any “real” writers out there, it’s a section of an essay my ten year old son wrote last year at school):

“A long while after that the baby snake magically reappeared. And for some ridiculous reason I had to pick it up and throw it out of the pool. ‘Did you just lick me, little snake? Because you better haven’t.’”

I happen to think my son is a pretty good writer, but he does what every beginning writer does – throws in words he doesn’t need. The “long while” is probably okay because it’s conveying a significant length of time, although he could have been more precise by saying something like “an hour later,” but that’s neither here nor there.

What about “baby snake”? Probably okay too, right? Of course, if he’s told the reader earlier that the snake is a baby, he doesn’t have to repeat it here. Depends on context.

“Magically reappeared?” Was it REALLY magic or is that hyperbolic? Well, that will depend on context too. If he’s writing fantasy, maybe the snake’s appearance was magical or maybe it seemed magical to him because he’s a child. But could he have said something more precise like “re-materialized?” That’s kind of clinical. What about simply “bobbed out of the water” or “came back”?

And then there’s “ridiculous reason.” That’s exactly how a kid talks, and writes. But what might you write instead?

Actually, I kind of like my son’s writing as it is! And “ridiculous reason” is him to a T. But you get the point. Sometimes you can weaken your prose by being flowery, by inserting words you don’t need and relying on qualifiers to get your point across. It’s a fun exercise to take passages you’ve written in the past and see if you can re-tool them in a more powerful, more direct voice. Adjectives and adverbs are not always our enemies. They can be great friends, but try using them sparingly and avoiding repetition. It will *probably* (see?) strengthen your prose.