Why Good Writers Avoid Adverbs and Adjectives

Writers often hear advice from published authors and teachers that are taken for granted. One is "show don't tell" and another is to never use adjectives and adverbs. Most writing advice that has become axiomatic is valid, but too often we hear the axiom but not the truth it is based on.

Lean, Powerful Prose

The fewer words you use, the more powerful your sentences are. The word "steak" is much more concise and powerful than "a great big piece of meat". The more you say in fewest amount of words the more you communicate in a shorter amount of time which will result in a greater impact. Often we get caught up in specifics that are only objective observations that do not hold much meaning for others. You might think your character "whispered daintily" but is it really worth watering down your prose for that. Whispers are always dainty.

Specific Images, Actions

Using single words to describe actions and objects quickly brings them to mind. When someone "stabs" a straw into their drink we see it, but "pokes swiftly" is not so clear. When a person "meanders" it is more accurate than "walking slowly". A man whose foot is described as a "hoof" is much more vivid that having "gnarled toes and sole". A "Porsche" is a much more striking image than a "German sports car".

Would A Character or Narrator Use That Word?

People do not use a lot of words. More often than not they err on the side of too few words. Only very particular narrators will so verbose as to use many extra words like adverbs or adjectives, your narrator probably is not that guy. Internal monologues will be filled with shorthand, not much use for extra descriptive words. In dialogue we use the most oblique phrasing possible, only getting specific when forced to.

Too Much Unnecessary Text Induces Skipping

Before the movies were invented people must have liked flowery over-the-top prose. They must have loved reading two pages of what someone's nose looked like, but these days people want you to communicate something meaningful at all times or they will take things into their own hands. As much as you might wish people to read every word you write because since it came from your head you feel it's important, if it is not relevant to the story or their life they will skip a bit... then some more... then maybe stop reading altogether. Test them at your peril.

Using Only Necessary Words Instills Trust

When a writer shows discipline in prose, they will be rewarded with attention when they do take time to explain more in-depth or to describe more fully. The mere fact that a prudent writer makes a point of deviating from their usual course of prudence shows that it is important and the reader will feel it and appreciate it. If you value a reader's time and attention they will value your taste and craft.

You need not be as sparse as Hemingway but in that general direction you ought sway. As writers we do think everything we write is important and it *is*; though that importance may only pertain to ourselves. When we write you have to keep the other in mind, it is like we are having a dialogue where the other person is mostly silent and answers back by continuing to read. You can never know what will turn someone off but you can do yourself a favor by packing the most in the least and that is why you should avoid adverbs and adjectives as much as possible.


I agree with this article. Now please explain Stephanie Meyer's success. Anyone?

ZING!!!
I totally agree. i once underlined all the words that described how they were saying something. Went through on chapter, and had a page full!

I must disagree. Which conveys more. A "steak" - or "A tender juicy stak, grilled to perfection"? For better examples, see any of the descriptions of meals from Robert Heinlein's novel Friday.

-Steve

I gotta agree with Steve. A "steak" can look and be cooked in so many different ways. Describing it really helps in creating the scene. The points in this article are not always applicable.

It's all a matter of what you are trying to do as a writer and I feel a writer's number one job is to tell the story. Setting a scene should only be done so far as to paint a reasonable picture the that reader can color with specifics.

No matter how detailed you are in written description it is still an inelegant way to communicate something a photo can do instantly and most times it's not needed.

I agree with Steve about descriptive writing. But, I agree with this article in terms of academic writing, which needs to be super clear. Although, in both "necessary" words only should be included. It depends what you're trying to convey and what type of writing you're doing.

I think you're missing the point here Steve. The author clearly states that the majority of the time you want to avoid adverbs and the like so that on the rare occasion when you do use them, say to point out how delicious a tender and juicy steak, grilled to perfection would be, the reader values the language more. If everything you describe in the story is filled with adverbs they lose meaning and just slow down the pace of the story.

I like particularly the line about economizing on words instilling trust in your reader. I tell my students at www.wordsmythe.ca that screenplays need to be written to keep the pages turning. Too much drek weighs down the page until the reader simply won't turn them over any longer... and they're gone!

Thanks for a great article.... I look forward to more!

Cheers - Jana / http://www.wordsmythe.ca

Great insights on some well trodden screenwriting advice here. You really brought some new ideas to the table.

I agree with Jana (above). "Using Only Necessary Words Instills Trust" - that's a terrific point.

Only bit I thought this article was missing was a cautionary line or two about getting TOO sparse with description. Sometimes we can get too caught up in this stuff, and have description that is too sparse.

But generally, this was spot on. Thanks for the great read!

- Script Quack

So, why didn't you delete such adjectives as: valid, lean, powerful, fewer, more powerful, concise, shorter, greater, objective, single, clear, more accurate, and so on with many others? Why didn't you delete adverbs such as really, quickly, fully, and so on?

Not all whispers are dainty, meander doesn't mean the same as walk slowly.

Learn to use language yourself before you presume to give other people advice.

This is a persuasive non-fiction article. Without adjectives I can hardly express to you how I feel about subjects.

In stories your job is not to preach about how you feel about the story but rather just tell the story. In the task of storytelling you can reap many benefits from avoiding adjectives whereas in the type of article like this one it is all but essential.

Different types of written material demand certain types of writing. But in general all stories can benefit from fewer adjectives and adverbs.

i cannot entirely agree with this...adjectives and adverbs create vivid mental pictures that actually make reading more interesting and enjoyable!
the oohs and aahs mostly are results of the modifiers we use in describing a scene (esp. romantic ones) or perhaps a character..

The title of the article is wrong. Are you talking about all writers?

I just think the title is way off, I get what you're saying, but it doesn't apply to all genres. Writers come in all flavors... good writers use adverbs and adjectives too. If you're writing articles for the New York Times, you are not likely using many adverbs and adjectives. Writers of Childrens' books are going to use "big fat juicy steak".

Me? I use them sometimes, sometimes not. And I'm a damn fine writer, you know? ;)

I'm going to write an article...

"Why Good Writers Don't Use Blanket Generalizations for Article Titles"

Cheers!

MF

With the easy availability of editing software in this era, it amazes me that someone posted this article in its current form. I imagine the circumstances were something like this: the author was home alone in an opium-fueled stupor and suddenly had a vision, as some form of retrograde amnesia was lifted, about an incident of childhood trauma involving a certain episode of Schoolhouse Rock. In the space of a single breath, the author frantically typed this entire article, and, with a great exhale, published it with the click of a single button.

Surely this must be the case. Surely no individual with the capability to form simple ideas would deign to post such drivel, even under what I fully assume to be a false name. The grammatical errors in this article are by themselves enough to condemn it to the status of nothing more than an unintended satire: I will not address them individually, as they should be rather immediately apparent to any reader. Further, the idea this article expresses is entirely useless: it amounts to "avoid unnecessary words," which is in itself such an oft stated and oft fallacious maxim that it hardly needs new attention called to it.

The most disappointing aspect of this article, though, is that anyone thought to seriously comment on it. I pray that the prior commenters were acting entirely in jest, to perpetuate this ridiculous fallacy for reasons entirely unknown to me.

ya'll are harsh for no reason, really. it's an article that is so unoffensive and unobtrusive that anyone willing to comment on it to thrash it just has too much damned time on their sorry hands in their continuously sorry lifes. YES YOU NICK, get a life and analyze real instruction from real published experts in their field and leave people in this blogosphere who are trying to get to some unimaginable level of authority and self understanding, the chance to compile and compress their little ideas too you silly llamas. ALRIGHT? I came across the same damn advice from an exercise from Ursula Le Guin and that's why I am here, she's just echoing the same advice. Now all haters, go to hell.

I think Ursula should go to hell too then.

Paul - you're alright in my book.

Oft-stated and oft-fallaciaous does not make something unworthy of further study.

On the bright side: your post has encouraged me to seek help with my opium addiction.

And yet, for all your bluster, you seem to have the longest post here.

And yet, Mr. Moses, for all your bluster, you seem to have the longest post here.

'I lurve ma great, big piece o' meat and I ain't trading him fu nuthin', not eeeven a steak.'

There are some good points in this article but also some sweeping generalisations. You can be a good writer and still use adverbs - think about dialogue - if people say them, they belong in dialogue - no?
Likewise adjectives.

'Mum, Mum, Muuuum! There was a truck, it was big and red and shiny and it nearly squashed Grandpa!'

Oh Martha. That cracked me up.

I was only reading this article because I was reading over something that I am working on and noticed that every sentence is gushing with adverbs and adjectives. However, to make blatant excuses for it, it is a romance. That's all I've been reading lately, romances, and they surely have influenced my brain into needing more modifiers! I want any reader of this piece to catch the sultry, seductive tone of the piece and feel the emotions of the characters. It's more about their reactions to things like kisses (and stake) than about what happens next. But that could be just me. I tend to read passages in romance novels over and over again before moving on, since all the adjectives and adverbs jumble up what is really being said about the storyline, but they really make the sweaty scenes steamier!

As someone who is brand-new to writing, I don't understand completely. Are you guys saying that there is no place at all in writing for adverbs? I just got dinged on this very thing on a class assignment and I am puzzled. If anyone can answer my question I'd be grateful.

They are saying that it depends on the style of writing that you are doing. Usually, in academic writing, they prefer no adverbs at all, especially if it is non-fiction writing. If you are veering towards the fiction areas, such as writing a short story for a creative writing class, then it is more understandable to use a few here and there.

I got dinged for using adverbs in a creative nonfiction piece, which I thought was pretty uptight. Thanks for your response Beth.

I am an aspiring writer and I found this article insightful. After reading some of the comments, I must say:
I see it as a case of balance. Sometimes detailed descriptions are required and sometimes it is unnecessary. Writers need to find the balance between too much and too little.
Thank you again for a helpful article.

To all the people the bashed the author of this article: Go do some yoga or something and loosen up. :)

I write haiku.It is all about getting to the point.I would advise all writers give haiku a try.It may provide a valuable exercise in efficiency.