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Deadly Don’t #3 ~ Adjective/Adverb Overload

Ah, adjectives—those beautiful, billowy, evocative words that describe other words (nouns) and make them so much more special. Right? Yes and no. Adjectives are useful when describing a person, place, or thing, but if you string too many together, or use them too often in a book, your writing will come across as “flabby.” Merriam-Webster reminds us, “The word red in ‘the red car’ is an adjective.” This is straightforward stuff. Readers in fact prize imaginative adjectives, and today writers work very hard to mix adjectives and nouns that haven’t historically been best friends. So what’s the deal with adjectives, you say? Keep reading and we’ll discover the answer together. Adverbs too are a legitimate part of speech. The ones that become problematic are what I call “-ly words.” Some of the most common ones are:

really extremely simply nearly certainly generally quickly recently usually exactly particularly clearly suddenly eventually directly

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, said, “Most adverbs are unnecessary.” Almost every sentence that includes an adverb could be rewritten without it.

In this Deadly Don’t we’ll consider adjectives the leaven I mentioned earlier. A little goes a long way (after all, there’s no other way to say “red car”); too many and you’ll have a big mess on your hands. Some writing coaches take a more hardline approach. Zinsser considered most adjectives and adverbs “clutter.” Mark Twain encouraged readers to “kill” any adjectives that survived their first drafts.

What you want to avoid is a construction that looks like this:

David was usually late for chemistry lab, but today he was very determined to be on time. The new science teacher that all the kids were talking about was said to be really kind and overwhelmingly lovely, with stunning green eyes and long, flowing, bright red hair.

As he stood outside in the sunny school courtyard, waiting impatiently to go inside, David listened to the idle chatter of his classmates, many of whom never dreamed that their words were being mentally recorded by their zealous classmate.

This may seem like an exaggerated example on my part, but a lazy writer can fall into this trap. If you write prose that’s riddled with these “helping words,” your manuscript will nosedive.

In an article for Writer’s Digest, William Noble writes:

Many inexperienced writers throw in “pretty” words to make their prose more dramatic and meaningful. But such cosmetic touch-up often turns out to be redundant or simply uninspiring. Take adverbs such as “lovingly” or “speedily” or “haltingly.” They each point to some circumstance or emotion or movement, yet do they offer solid impact?

Mark Twain had it right: “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” The tendency is to try and beef up the noun being modified. It’s human, I suppose; most of us can never be that sure we’re getting our point across. Decorate that noun some more, your fragile self-confidence hears. Don’t run the risk the prose will fall flat because it isn’t distinctive enough.

Bottom line: watch those “pretty words.” Pare down your paragraphs by taking a hard look at them.

Divine Do: Use adjectives with care; ditch most adverbs.

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