Tessa has been published for more than half a century. She has been a ghostwriter, a scriptdoctor, a copywriter, a content writer, & author.
Scratch Out Those Adjectives and Adverbs!
The very first time in my life I showed my work to a professional playwright, he took a red pen and scratched out every single adjective and adverb in my writing. “Now read it,” he said. I had to confess there and then that it was day and night. Since then, I have never used an adjective or adverb in my writing unless it was absolutely vital to express what I was saying.
As I write this, I pick up the work of bestselling novelist Christine Feehan, and I read through a few paragraphs. Not an adjective in sight!
An adjective is a word that describes a noun. Examples are beautiful, ugly, deadly, small, white, etc.
An adverb is a word that describes a verb. Examples are prettily, swiftly, funnily, etc. Americans tend not to know the difference between an adverb and an adjective, and they use adjectives to describe verbs.
Show Don't Tell
There’s a lot of confusion about what 'Show don't tell' means. Basically, it means you should explain something so vividly that it comes to life. Ernest Hemmingway was a master of this.
This is from A Farewell to Arms:
“The wind rose in the night and at three o'clock in the morning with the rain coming in sheets there was a bombardment and the Croatians came over across the mountain meadows and through patches of woods and into the front line. They fought in the dark in the rain and a counter-attack of scared men from the second line drove them back. . . .
The wounded were coming into the post, some were carried on stretchers, some walking and some were brought on the backs of men that came across the field. They were wet to the skin and all were scared. We filled two cars with stretcher cases as they came up from the cellar of the post and as I shut the door of the second car and fastened it I felt the rain on my face turn to snow. The flakes were coming heavy and fast in the rain”
Note that Hemmingway does not say things like:
- “The cold wind rose in the dark night”
- “With the icy rain coming in green meadows”
- “We filled two black cars with old stretcher cases”
- “I felt the cold rain on my warm face”
Hemmingway used simple sentences and described the action. It is describing the action without adjectives and verbs that best illustrates the idiom ‘Show, don’t tell.’ The secret to 'show don't tell' is rapid movement. Each word must move the scene forward. Adjectives tend to make the piece static.
Why Beginner Writers Use Adjectives
Would you believe me if I told you that it was because they were taught this in writing classes at school and university?
It’s that simple.
Writing courses are generally taught by English majors, and they generally study literature—the writing of others. They don’t, however, study the writing style of others. They study the life lessons that these authors supposedly teach.
When you find an adjective, kill it.
— Mark Twain
Communication vs. Literary Writing
Writing teachers seldom major in communication, a discipline that teaches students the finer points of writing well.
In addition, the kind of writing English teachers study isn’t particularly interesting writing—it’s literary writing. Literary writing can be defined as the "meaning of life" stuff—the kind of thing that bores most readers to tears.
I recall when my daughter was ten years old she still couldn’t read. I was devastated. If there was one thing my family did, it was read!
I found one of my old Enid Blyton books, Five on Treasure Island and I started reading to her. I ended at chapter one. The next evening I read chapter two to her. On the third evening, my daughter brought me the book and asked me to read chapter three. I told her I was busy cooking (I was). I asked her to read it to me. She said she couldn’t read. “Try,” I said. “I’ll help you.” She wasn’t willing. She went back to her bedroom.
When I checked on her five minutes later, she was lying on her bed, reading.
From that day on, my daughter became a reader.
Years later, I asked her why she had not previously enjoyed reading.
“At school, they read such boring books,” she replied.
Writing vs. Writing Well
To get back to writing classes, students are also taught that the story must be character-driven. This means that all the action that happens is a result of the character of the protagonist. In plot-driven books (these are the books that sell), the action happens as a result of events that have nothing to do with the character of hero or heroine.
Students are also taught that the lead character must grow or change as a result of circumstance.
Again, by all means, write like that. You may win a Nobel prize, but a bestselling novelist, you will not be.
So I’m just going to say this again, “Writing courses teach people to write badly. Only use adjectives and adverbs if you absolutely must."
Why You Should Limit the Use of Adjectives and Adverbs
- It slows down the reading speed of readers, and studies show that the faster one reads, the more intense the reading experience. Those who read a minimum of a book a week find it frustrating to have their reading speed affected by bad writing.
- It’s telling, not showing. Here’s an example from Dark Celebrations by Christine Feeham. “Gabriel sank down onto the couch with Gary on one side of her and Jubal on the other. Joie and Traian shared a chair. Mikhail stood in the corner nearest the door and Gregori stood, arms folded across his broad chest, his body between Mikhail’s and the rest of the room.’ Note that there is only one adjective, yet you have a very vivid idea of the way the characters were placed.
- It adversely affects the rhythm of the writing. For some reason, those who teach writing courses seldom mention the rhythm of good writing, but without it, you will never get published—not mainstream, anyway. Over-using adjectives and adverbs remove any possible rhythm from writing. It just doesn’t work.
Go With the Action!
Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit! You can use adjectives and adverbs on occasion, but only if omitting them detracts from the visual understanding of the reader. It’s best to describe something without using adjectives. So, for example, instead of saying something like “The hot, burning sun beat down on his back,” it would be better to say, “His back felt the heat of the sun" or "He felt the heat of the sun on his back."
© 2017 Tessa Schlesinger
S Maree on November 13, 2017:
I'm not fond of novels, preferring biographies, narratives and historical perspectives. Fortunately, they tend to contain few adjectival distractions.
Perhaps this is why I find most poetry stultifying. When I read a poem that catches my spirit and carries it along (as with most of Frost's), I savor it!
No wonder the successful writers usually work carefully with their editors and proofreaders to cut and polish their masterpieces. They treat their works as a gem cutter treats a stone. More than half the stone may be cut away before the brilliance emerges!
Many pages may be discarded; many words red-lined before success!
Thoughtful and educational for any age.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 13, 2017:
I never thought of it this way, but you are correct. I will certainly keep this in mind while I am writing! Thanks for the enlightening article.
S Maree on November 13, 2017:
Interesting! Never thought about it. I know now why my grammar teacher's mantra was "flowers belong in gardens".
She also urged us to "pare to the pith". I get it! How tired she must have been of reading our tedious compositions.