Adjectives, Adverbs, and Great Writing

How do adjectives and adverbs impact writing? These word classes are crucial for writing clear descriptions, but overusing them can lead to wordiness.

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Manuscript Mentoring

October 6, 2020 · 9 Min Read

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After defining and giving examples of adjectives and adverbs, we look at how they influence sentence structure and readability. We then analyze how these word classes can cause wordiness, and how wordy writing should be revised. Wordiness can obviously take various forms (logorrhea, redundancies etc.), but in this article we will be focusing exclusively on the impact of excessive adjectives and adverbs. Although there is a jump-to index for easy navigation, this article is meant to be read from start to finish.

 

Adjectives

 

Adjective Meaning

adjective  noun

 

: a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages and typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else

// The word red in "the red car" is an adjective.

—  Merriam-Webster

Basically, an adjective is a word that gives more detail about a noun. The inclusion of adjectives usually adjusts the mental image of the word they modify. The Merriam-Webster dictionary uses the example of “the red car”. What do you associate with a red car? Success, a flashy lifestyle, or something entirely different? Whatever your association, the inclusion of the “red” adjective changes what would otherwise be a bland noun. This has obvious implications for fiction, which we cover in a bit.

 

Adjective Examples

He is a fast runner.
She is a smart student.
That is a strange idea.
Those are pretty shoes.
I am looking for a bespectacled man.
A noisy dog that has a squeaky bark.
A foolish action committed by the dimwitted criminal.
A brown horse standing in the white barn.
A wispy cloud in the middle of a blue sky.
A rusty, slow bicycle.

 

Adverbs

Adverb Meaning

 

adverb noun

 

: a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages, typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a preposition, a phrase, a clause, or a sentence, expressing some relation of manner or quality, place, time, degree, number, cause, opposition, affirmation, or denial, and in English also serving to connect and to express comment on clause content

// In "arrived early" the word "early" is an adverb.

—  Merriam-Webster

Like adjectives, adverbs modify words for greater detail. Additionally, they adjust the reader’s mental image of the word being modified. The Merriam-Webster description gives “early” in “arrived early” as an example. This modification immediately alters the visual image the reader has of the person or thing doing the arriving. If it is a person, then character traits are imagined. Why is he early? Is the person nervous about a meeting, or just orderly? How does orderly look? Is he dressed in a suit? Does he carry a briefcase? Does he check his watch every two minutes? All of these considerations have arisen from just one adverb. These types of questions are constantly asked and answered as the reader interacts with the writer’s world. Adverbs therefore have a very real and direct impact on the reading experience. However, like adjectives, adverbs shouldn’t be overused—something we cover in the Concise and Wordy Writing section below.

 

Adverb Examples

He spoke softly.
She drove slowly.
He jumped up lightly.
The parrot is a fantastically good speaker.
The dog almost always howls at the moon.
Sally is quite pretty.
He will enroll tomorrow.
I often wonder what the future holds.
We will know soon.
Across the river, cabins can be found everywhere.

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Concise and Wordy Writing

So far, we’ve touched on the impact of adjectives and adverbs on writing. They can clarify descriptions and adjust the reader’s perception of a person, thing, or event—powerful tools to have in your arsenal as a writer. However, when overused, adjectives and adverbs can make descriptions convoluted and difficult to understand. 

Concise writing is what separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. There are genres that are more lenient when it comes to using adjectives and adverbs, but a good rule of thumb is to trim these word classes as much as possible. Prose is often categorized into two groups, literary and commercial. Writers of literary fiction focus on delivering polished prose free of clutter—a goal attained with much revision. Commercial fiction writers, on the other hand, focus less on the mechanics of writing (style, structure) and more on ideas. As with anything in life, there are exceptions to the rule. You get commercial fiction writers with incredibly concise prose (Martha Wells, for example), and literary fiction writers who devise unique, compelling plots (Adam Johnson, David Mitchell etc.). For the most part, however, writers gravitate toward one of these two aspects. That being said, writers of commercial fiction (romance, fantasy, crime etc.) often have the misconception that ideas alone can carry a book. This is not true—every book, no matter the genre, has to have a certain degree of conciseness. 

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What are some stylistic indications of wordiness?

As we’ve just mentioned, your definition of wordiness will be slightly different depending on the genre of your project. Wordiness also takes various forms, such as logorrhea (abstract, long-winded writing), repeating information, and stating redundant information. However, we’ll be focusing on lazily constructed descriptions, which are most often marked by, you guessed it, excessive adjectives and adverbs.


Why are these word classes often overused in writing? The answer is simple: speech. When we talk with other people, we use adjectives and adverbs to shorten what we’re trying to say. For example, instead of reporting how immense a building is, from its front doors to its many chimneys and hallways, it is easier to say “It is very big.” Speech patterns usually transfer into writing, and it takes practice to learn which constructions work. Obviously, the writer can’t discard all adjectives and adverbs in a bid to write perfect prose; both word classes are necessary and, in fact, important. So how do you decide which to keep and which to cut?

 

When a word is modified by more than one modifier

Avoid using more than one adjective or adverb when modifying a word. You don’t have to write: A big, black, smart rottweiler. You can shorten the sentence to: A big rottweiler. Similarly, you don’t need two adverbs in the sentence: She sings quite horrifically. It reads better as: She sings horrifically.

 

When an adjective or adverb is not absolutely necessary

Is it really necessary to point out the color of a character’s shoes to the reader? How does knowing the character’s preferred brand of cereal advance the plot? Is it important to distinguish between a fast runner and very fast runner? Keep a modifier only if the modification has material value to the scene or the plot.

 

When a sentence is overly long

On average, overly long sentences have more adjectives and adverbs than needed. What constitutes a long a sentence? Simply put, one that tries to explain too much. We’ll touch on this a bit more in the next section, but try to cut modifiers from sentences that are overly descriptive.

 

When a scene is filled with musing and indecision

There is usually a lead-up scene or period before a character has to make a difficult decision. Should he or shouldn’t he be deceitful? What will his long-time crush say if he proposes to her in front of her boyfriend? What will the reaction be to him using his tuition to pursue an acting career? Needless to say, the reader has to experience the tension within a character before a plot-altering decision is made. However, this push and pull can often lead to wordiness in the form of extended musing. Specifically, modifiers such as sometimes, better, worse, maybe, perhaps etc. are usually a staple of these scenes. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with writing such dialogue or thought processes, but be aware that they can easily become bloated with adjectives and adverbs. If you’re doing a revision focusing on wordiness, then pay special attention to lengthy paragraphs of musing.

 

When superlatives are used in descriptions

Is your heroine the smartest kid in school? Is your villain the evilest man in existence? Is your support character the fastest runner in Australia? Is your protagonist’s house the biggest, best construction in the country? Descriptions related to the preeminence of characters or things should always be scrutinized. These types of passages can often go beyond stylistic issues into structural (exposition, pacing etc.), but passable descriptions can and often become cumbersome when the writer starts using superlatives.

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How do you fix wordy writing?

Method 1: Top-Layer Cutting

 

Obviously, there’s more to concise writing than just cutting excessive adjectives and adverbs. That being said, removing these “Top-Layer” modifiers when they aren’t necessary will go a long way to smooth your writing.

 
As we’ve mentioned, adjectives and adverbs can bloat text with wordy detail and weak sentences. However, you can’t write a book without these word classes. When used sparingly, they give clarity to vague descriptions and enhance the synergy of the prose. Learning when to cut or add an adjective or adverb is crucial in this regard. However, most of the time, you’ll want to do more cutting than adding. Writers often believe that they have to explain things in the minutest detail for the reader to be sufficiently oriented. Again, this is not true; trust the reader’s imagination. Have a look at the dictionary example cited at the beginning of this article: “the red car”. Red is enough of a descriptor. The writer does not need to say, “the fast, convertible, polished, red car”—red is enough to make the car stand out. If it is important for the reader to know about a specific trait of the car, then you should insert this information by clever use of syntax—not by tacking on additional adjectives and adverbs.

 

Method 2: Rewriting

This usually sounds more daunting than it is. When excessive adjectives and adverbs have been cut, it can often expose other problems, such as vague descriptions or a lack of sentence variation. Have a look at the following example:

The fast, sleek, red car was beautiful. I often saw it.

In the version below, one adverb and two adjectives were removed (“red” and “beautiful” were maintained). Note how dull it reads.

The red car was beautiful. I saw it.

Shortfalls in the original sentence are now even more prominent after the removal of the adjectives and adverbs. Both sentences are simple sentences, which feels repetitive in this case. Additionally, the second sentence lacks an adequate transition. To properly fix the original sentence, a rewrite is required.

We can say:

I often saw the red car racing down the road. Although I disliked the driver, I could not help but be envious of his ride.

In the above version, sentence variation has been adjusted by turning the second sentence into a complex sentence. All of the most important information of the original sentence is maintained.

If we’re aiming for something more evocative, we can rewrite the original sentence with an analogy (while still maintaining the original information):

The red car stood out against the backdrop of the forest. It moved fast—faster than the sparrows swooping about in the sky.

Remember, a sentence in a novel is not written in a vacuum. If you change the structure of a sentence or a paragraph, you have to see if it still fits the surrounding text. It is not uncommon for a whole paragraph to change because you adjusted a single clause. This is a topic for another discussion, but writers often mistake proofreading for rewriting. Suffice to say, don’t be scared to cut wordiness—your writing will benefit from it. 


Rewriting is not always necessary, of course. Sentences can go from bloated to well written by just cutting adverbs and adjectives. There is no one-rule-fits-all technique when it comes to removing wordiness from writing.

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Concise and Wordy Comparison Table

We’ve covered the pitfalls of overusing adjectives and adverbs. Now, let’s compare some examples of wordy and concise writing in the table below. Adjectives and adverbs are boldfaced. Note how both versions of every example evoke the same image—even though the wordy version of each is longer.

Wordy

I knew she was smart, funny, and pretty. However, she was also sarcastic and arrogant.

Concise

Her intelligence and beauty made her arrogant.

Gary was standing in a small, ten-by-ten-foot garden filled with big plants, overgrown trees, and, if you looked carefully, hidden cacti.

Gary was standing in a small garden filled with ferns, trees, and cacti.

My turgid thoughts drifted to faraway places. Long before, he had made many, big, bold promises. Now, however, they seemed foolish, destructive, and irresponsible.

My thoughts drifted to when we were young. He had promised me the world, but age had proven him a liar.

People often thought of him as a fair, kind individual. Yet on that rainy night his shocking deed proved everyone wrong.

When what he had done came to light, everyone knew that his kindness had been a ruse.

Strange things happen when she goes into the darkest of the three forests.

Things happen when she goes into the forest.

The tower was made of grey stone, and wide, gaping cracks laced its walls.

Cracks laced the tower.

A sword gives a king authority, power, and respect. Without it, he comes across as weak and indecisive.

The sword makes the king.

 

Conclusion

Adjective and adverbs are by no means the enemy of concise prose—excessive adjectives and adverbs are. Even experienced writers have to revise their work to remove redundancies and filler words. This article was not written as a cure-all for wordiness, and it shouldn’t be used as one. Instead, it highlights and offers practical advice for a single manifestation of the issue. That being said, cutting excessive adjectives and adverbs is one of the easier techniques used to make writing tighter and, therefore, more enjoyable. In a way, revising these modifiers is a good starting point for making your writing more concise. However, this type of trimming often necessitates the rewriting of sentences and paragraphs. Remember, prose is not a mathematical problem that can be solved by applying formulae; advice should always be tempered with a thorough understanding of the project it is intended for.

 

Manuscript Mentoring

Manuscript Mentoring helps writers to develop engaging prose free of excessive adjectives and adverbs. If you need a professional editor to help you with the ins and outs of concise writing, then have a look at our Services page.