“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King
It’s not unusual for writing experts to recommend keeping adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. But many writers prefer to laden their language with modifiers, usually as a way to provide more detail and description for readers. And young and new writers tend to overuse intensifiers, which are adverbs (such as very) that intensify other words.
Should we avoid adjectives and adverbs, or should we welcome them into our prose and poetry with total abandon? As with most things, the best approach is moderation.
The Problem with Adverbs and Adjectives
Adverbs and adjectives are modifiers — they modify other words. Adjectives modify nouns, and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using modifiers in our writing. Sometimes we need to use them. There’s really no way to describe the color of a car other than writing something like the car is red.
But too often, weak adjectives and adverbs are used when a stronger noun or verb would work better. Let’s look at some examples:
- I heard a sound.
- She’s running.
Both of these sentences are bland. Let’s spice them up with some modifiers:
- I heard a loud sound.
- She’s running fast.
In the examples above, loud is an adjective that modifies the noun sound. The word fast is an adverb that modifies the verb running. Both loud and fast are modifiers, which give the reader a better visual by providing more information. But in these examples, loud sound and walking fast could be considered weak language choices, because stronger, more vivid words are available. Instead of using adjective-noun and adverb-verb couplings, we can find nouns and verbs that don’t require modification:
- I heard a din.
- She’s sprinting.
While readers will get the right idea with loud sound and walking fast, single nouns and verbs that are more descriptive will result in clearer, more vivid, and concise language, and a stronger piece of writing.
Some of the weakest words in our language are the ones that do nothing more than enhance or intensify other words. He’s not just sad; he’s very sad. The house is not just big; it’s super big. Words like very, a lot, and much are common intensifiers, as are words like super, tremendous, huge, and other words that are often used to indicate size or amount, but often in a lackluster way.
Sometimes we need to use these words. It’s not that writers should wipe them out of their vocabularies. But whenever we can find a single word that captures the meaning we want to convey, we’ll end up with more vivid language and a better piece of writing. Let’s see what we can do to remove the intensifiers from our two examples (“he’s very sad” and “the house is super big”).
- He’s heartbroken, bereaved, or disconsolate.
- The house is mammoth, titanic, massive.
Note how much more vivid and powerful “He’s heartbroken” is compared to “He’s very sad.” We’ve replaced an intensifier and an adjective (two words) with a single adjective, which is more powerful. And consider how much more vivid a “mammoth house” is in the readers’ imagination compared to a “very big house.”
Draft and Prune
Often when drafting, it’s best to let the language flow naturally. If we spend too much time nitpicking at our words while drafting, we’ll never get our thoughts out of our heads and onto the page. And because our common speech is littered with modifiers like adjectives, adverbs, and intensifiers, they will often make their way into our initial writing. Rough drafts are littered with these words.
Luckily, we can then prune our language and replace these words with stronger, more vivid language during edits and revisions. Often, we can use the thesaurus to find better replacement words. In fact, I found heartbroken, bereaved, and disconsolate in the thesaurus as synonyms for sad.
If you’re curious about how often you use weak or poor adjectives and adverbs, here’s a little exercise you can do: Take out a piece of your writing. It can be a draft or a polished piece. Ideally, you’ll work with one of each. Go through and highlight all the modifiers. Then go through and see if you can find better replacement words. Pay particular attention to intensifiers, especially very. Remove and replace if at all possible.
“A world without adjectives
would still have the sun rising and setting,
the flowers blooming, the trees bearing fruits,
the birds singing, and the bees stinging.”
Have you ever examined your writing to assess how you use adjectives and adverbs? Do you think these parts of speech are best avoided, or do you prefer to use them in abundance? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!