Writing Tip — Death to all Adjective and Adverbs!

words-1034410_1280Or at least some serious injury. This post at Almost an Author talks about how the current writing style tries to eliminate most adjectives and adverbs. After I got Miss Hall’s response to my question, I realized that the new style poses both advantages and a unique danger to writers, especially to beginning ones.


The current style is more descriptives. When a strong verb can do the work of a verb and an adverb, then eliminating the adverb makes sense. The sentence is both more descriptive and shorter.

He walked home slowly.

He trudged home.

And some words have been so overused that they don’t hold any meaning any more. “Really” and “suddenly” can’t be used, except in dialogue.


But in the case of the example Miss Hall provides, the description grows from 23 words with adjectives and adverbs to 39 without them. The passage is more descriptive, and longer is not necessarily worse. But I think writers can very easily develop the written equivalent of long-windedness if we don’t exercise caution when replacing adjectives and adverbs.

So what’s a writer do do? Here is my advice.

First draft

Use as many adjectives and adverbs as you want if they express most clearly what you are describing. If the lettuce is green, fragile, ruffled, and crispy, put it all down. In a first draft, getting the words down is more important than what words you put down.


As you edit your first draft, determine which adjectives and adverbs you should replaces and how succinctly you can replace them. If your replacement description is longer than the adjectives or adverbs, make sure it doesn’t effect your pacing.

Read recently published books and see when and how they use adjectives and adverbs. The current style allows more adjectives than adverbs. I find, especially when describing the physical characteristics of a character, there is just no other good way to go about it except by using adjectives.

My main character describes his eyes as “boring” and “blue”. I don’t know how else to describe the color and by adding “boring”, the reader learns a little about how my main character sees himself.

If you would like to learn about the basics of how to use adjectives and adverbs, these two articles will show you.

memo-29039_1280Personal Note

If you read the comments below Miss Hall’s article, you will find one that disagrees strongly with the new style. I don’t think it’s better or worse. It’s just what publishers believe people will read. Three thousand years ago, if you wanted to tell a long story, you wrote an epic poem. Now you write a triple-decker novel. One’s not better than the other. Both want to meet the needs of the reading public of that time.

Who knows? If fifty years, writers may be passing death sentences on strong verbs.


Writing Tip — Parts of Speech — Noun

For basic information on nouns, visit this post at Almost an Author. Ms. Toler-Dougherty writes about how specific nouns need capitalized. For example, “church” vs. “Walnut Ridge Presbyterian Church”. But I leared from my editor Sharyn a different kind of specificity when it comes to nouns.

“Be specific!”

As my characters drive into the West Virginia mountains, I wrote about the shrubs growing close to the road and the trees making a ceiling overhead.

Sharyn said, “Be specific!”

She meant: What kind of trees? Eastern hemlock? Walnut? Coconut? What kinds of shrubs? Mountain laurel? Holly? What?

My characters sit down to a meal of soup and bread.

Sharyn said, “Be specific!”

What kind of soup? Tomato? Chicken noodle? Shark fin? What kind of bread? Whole wheat, white, or rye?

One reason I didn’t make my nouns more specific was because I didn’t think readers wanted that much detail. Another reason was I thought too many details would slow down the narrative.

That’s true if I describe the soup as “chicken noodle soup with lush, homemade noodles and thick chunks of chicken” when those details add nothing to the story. But just adding “chicken noodle” to “soup” helps the reader make a more vivid “work picture”, as Sharyn says.

I didn’t specify the plants and animals of the mountains because I didn’t know them that well.  But my narrator would because he has lived in the mountains all his life. So, instead of being lazy, I am doing research and will try to visit the location of my setting so I can get the species right. I won’t dwell on the botany of each plant, but writing “the red oaks and hickories made a canopy over our heads” sounds so much better than “the tall trees made a canopy over our heads.”

As long as I drop in the precise nouns just where they are needed, my story will be richer not slower.

Writing Tip

group-1825513_1280Strong Verbs Not Allowed

From the writers in my writing group, I’ve learned that dialogue tags are out of style.  You should only use “said” with maybe “asked” and “whispered” sprinkled in.  And only use “said” when there is no better way to indicate who is talking.

The style now is using action statements to show who is speaking.

Don’t write:  “Don’t do it,” I warned.

“You can’t stop me,” sneered the Evil Villian.

“Help me,” screamed the Hysterical Victim.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” I vowed.

Do write:. “Don’t do it!”  I charged up the stairs.

“You can’t stop me.”  The Evil Villian grabbed an automatic.

“Help me!”  The Hysterical Victim strained against the handcuffs.

“I’ll do whatever I can.”  I dived for the gun.

I see how they second version provides more information to the reader to help him create a more vivid mental picture.  I also understand how tags can be overdone with characters replying, yelling, crying, adding, interrupting, gasping, and so on.

You can also convey the delivery of the dialogue with the words used within the dialogue.

Instead of:  “That’s terrible,” he growled.

Write:  “That’s the worse news I’ve had all year.”

The second line delivers more meaning, it’s more precise, more colorful.

But …

Personally, I don’t mind reading tags, if, as I said above, it’s not overdone.  I like to know how the dialogue sounds.  The action tags give me clues sometimes, but I think a verb describing the sound of the voice in the dialogue tag give just  as much information.

I don’t know when the minimizing of dialogue tags began.  I find a lot of them in older books, from 50 years ago or longer.  Perhaps it has something do with TV shows and movies.  People are so used to storytelling being visual that authors try to copy that action as best they can in print.

Authors of current children’s books still use a variety of verbs for dialogue tags.  The technique makes the story easier to follow.

So what’s your opinion?  Should no one ever growl or yell or sob?  Or can these be used sparingly?

Writing Tip

gerund-1025453_1280Verb, That’s What Happening

On Almost an Author, Hope Toler Dougherty will be discussing parts of speech this year and started with verbs.  Click here to read.  I am adding what I have learned so far about using verbs.

Strong Verbs

When I was in college, a visiting author said she told some local reporters to use strong verbs in their writing.  This is something I am relearning since I hired a fellow writer who is also a free-lance editor to edit my novel.

For example, let’s look at the sentence.  “He walked across the street.”

Really?  Is that all he did?  I don’t want to waste an opportunity, so I need to pick a verb that conveys more action or description or both.

  • If he’s angry: “He marched”, “He stalked”, or “He stormed off”
  • If he’s in a hurry: “He ran”, “He raced”, “He scurried”, or “He dashed”
  • If he’s relaxed: “He strolled”, “He sauntered”, or “He moseyed”

Some other words for “walk”: “ramble”, “wander”, “parade”, “tramp”, “hike”, “tread”, “pace”, and “step”.

Because I write from the first-person point of view of a teenager, I don’t want to use verbs only an adult would use.  But my editor pointed out that in my effort to stay in character, I used the same verbs too often, which will bore my readers.

“Look” was the major culprit, not only as in “to see” but also in appearance  I need to find synonyms that add variety to my writing while staying in character.  Turning to my hand-dandy thesaurus, I find listed under “look” the synonyms “behold”, “perceive”, “discern”, “inspect”, “scan”, “stare”, “seem”, and “appear”.  I won’t use the first three because my character wouldn’t use those words.  But the others will work.  So will “glance”, “glimpse”, “turn”, “move my eyes”, and “shift my gaze”.

If you write in third-person, select verbs that convey the correct meaning but not ones so obscure they send your reader to a dictionary, or worse, to another book.

My editor pointed out there is one place where you don’t want strong verbs.  I’ll talk about that next time.

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