Removing Adjectives and Adverbs

One of my greatest takeaways on a micro level from my MA fiction coursework is that adverbs should be avoided as much as possible. The reason for this is that they tell instead of show. If I say, “Susie ran quickly,” isn’t it better to say, “Susie sprinted,” and show the reader with a stronger verb?

(The answer is yes.)

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So, I tried to write without adverbs whenever I could, with one exception–in speech. I don’t know about you personally, but I, and most people I’ve observed fall back on laziness in speech. I use “very” and other adverbs, because I’m trying to get a thought across fast enough to keep up with conversation, and sometimes the more powerful word doesn’t jump off of my tongue.

But in writing, there is plenty of time to draft, unless you’re participating in a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo, which I no longer participate in (but that’s a topic for another day), or unless somehow you don’t plan for deadlines and have to rush to get work done. In that case, stop reading this post and go organize your work so you don’t find yourself in that precarious situation.

Then, after drafting, there’s plenty of time to edit and revise. There’s time to go back through and think of the more powerful words to replace those lazy substitutions our brains make when we’re just trying to get ideas onto paper or screen before it flits out of our heads again.

And that, my friend, is what I want to talk about today.

My experiment started with my mentor’s feedback.

Months ago–wow, has it really been that long?–I received my first round of feedback from my mentor. I was ecstatic that she approved my thesis topic–the themes that drive the novel I’m working on for my MFA. I was less enthralled to discover I’d fallen into the trap of using adverbs in my narrative.

How did that happen?

After forcing myself to break that habit two years ago, how did I fall back into it? Simple. I was focused on other elements and let my guard down. Like an infection, adverbs infiltrated my prose and took it over, with the help of their slightly less harmful cousins, adjectives.

Wait, what’s wrong with adjectives?

Nothing really, except for when there are too many of them. My mentor commented that the text felt bogged down by them. She understood I was worldbuilding, but by focusing on that one element, I’d unwittingly abandoned character development and plot. They were there of course, so perhaps I didn’t really abandon them, but they had taken a back seat to shaping the 17th-century world.

My mentor said many of my descriptions were beautiful, but that’s not enough.

My first reaction was to wonder if I’d gotten in over my head. So I put down her email, which I had printed as though that would change the words, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke knowing that I wasn’t in over my head, but that I had to take a drastic step to undo the laziness to which I’d allowed myself to succumb.

The Delete Key

I deleted every single adjective and every single adverb from my work. What happened next was eye-opening. Suddenly, I had space to explore my character. I had space to draw out the plot points and make them exciting.

And the worldbuilding? Don’t worry. It’s not gone–but it’s woven in more subtlety.

I remember years ago when I was working on a historical fiction piece, one of my beta readers told me she stopped reading because she didn’t know what a “davit” was. I always kept that memory with me, but now, thinking back on it, I decided a few things:

  • She didn’t need to know in that instant what a davit is.
  • She could have looked up the term instead of expecting me to stop my plot to explain every detail in the moment.
  • I shouldn’t have felt compelled to compose an encyclopedic dump on whaling vessels and their parts.

Instead, what I ended up doing, was writing from the point of view of a character who had never worked on a whaling ship before. Just because I knew the parts were called davits didn’t mean anyone else had to at that time. Instead, I described the parts by their function–they’re wooden arms built off of the side of the ship with pulleys. They’re used to raise and lower whaling boats, among other things.

Do you need to know they’re called davits? No. I was being pedantic and a little lazy, and my reader was being lazy, too–perhaps because I had been.

A time and a place…

Just as I said there was a time and place for adverbs (only in dialogue or internal thoughts), there is a time and place for an adjective. They can be used, but only when they add to the value of the narrative, and never when they detract from it.

I spoke with my mentor on the phone recently and tried to get a definitive answer from her but she reminded me that answering that would mean telling me what my style should be.

I’m still feeling that out–exactly how often I should let myself include adjectives. But I know this: When I don’t include them, my writing is more active and more exciting. When I do include them, it’s prettier, but it slows everything to a crawl. For now, I’m using pacing as my guide, and in the meantime, I’m enjoying writing my character’s thoughts and feelings in addition to his actions.