Thanks to everyone who stopped by last week’s class! It was fun, wasn’t it?
If you’re new here, welcome! This thread is mostly aimed at Beginner and Intermediate writers, but everyone is welcome to participate. I hope to cover one main topic each week—mostly common beginner errors or ways to improve one’s writing. Advanced and Masters writers, I LOVE it when you add your own wonderful insights to what I post.
No pressure and no difficult assignments—no grades—just friendly commentary on your response to the lesson or the homework.
But first, I’ve decided to introduce a new feature: Quick Takes. Here’s today’s:
Never use ‘alot’. It’s not a word, and it’s one of the most common errors I see. If you mean ‘to a great extent’ or ‘a large number’, you want two words: a lot.
I like chocolate-covered bacon a lot. NOT I like chocolate-covered bacon alot.
A lot of people think I’m gorgeous. NOT Alot of people think I’m gorgeous.
How to remember this? Consider the opposite…you’d never write
I like chocolate-covered bacon alittle. OR Afew people think I’m gorgeous.
Better still—‘a lot’ is an immature phrase--not your best writing. If you find yourself tempted to use it, think again. There’s a better way to say it.
Now to the real lesson for this week: Beware of Adjectives and Adverbs.
Don’t get me wrong—some of my best friends are adjectives and adverbs. But much as I like them, I get pretty tired of them after a while. Just a little description goes a long way. So I don’t want anyone to say “Jan said I couldn’t use adjectives and adverbs any more”. Not true—but I’d like you to consider ways they’re sometimes overused or misused, and to examine your own writing accordingly.
1. Avoid unnecessary or redundant adjectives and adverbs. There’s no need to write about the “large white polar bear.” If it’s a polar bear, large and white are understood. Similarly, you needn’t write that someone “whispered softly”. There’s no other way to whisper. Trimming these sorts of descriptors will make your writing tighter—and free up some words that you can apply to things like characterization or plot development.
2. Avoid lists of adjectives describing one thing. There’s no reason to write about the “exquisite, colorful, awe-inspiring sunset”. The sunset may have been all of those things, but you don’t want to tire your reader out by describing it thus. Pick one adjective for the sunset and move on. If you must, you may use two adjectives (where one perfect adjective isn’t available), but when you edit your rough draft, take the second one out.
3. Adverbs—in particular, -ly adverbs—can almost always be discarded in favor of a better, more specific verb. This goes back to last week’s class on ‘salsa’ words: it’s better to write “sneered” than “smiled cruelly” or “pounced” than “jumped sneakily”. This goes double when you’re writing dialog tags (about which I’ll have a whole lesson at some point).
4. In general, people’s eyes tend to glaze over when reading long descriptive passages. Most readers of fiction want dialog and action more than description. So unless the crocheted afghan on the green velvet couch and the flocked wallpaper and the fringed lampshade and the fire flickering invitingly in the fireplace are essential to your plot, skip the description. Or rather, include it in snippets here and there, in sentences that also include your characters and what they’re doing or saying.
5. Finally, avoid using adjectives or adverbs that make your reader suspect that you’ve been hitting the thesaurus too hard.
Most of what I’ve written here applies particularly to the Writing Challenge, where you have only 750 words to tell a complete story. Trimming unnecessary modifiers is a great way to tighten up your writing for such an ultra-short form. But it’s also a valuable exercise for writers of longer works; being able to write tight, concise pieces is an important writing skill.
My daughter once had a professor tell her that she could write more in fewer words than any student he’d ever had—and he meant it as a great compliment.
Obviously, none of these tips are engraved in stone. Nevertheless, I’d advise you to master getting rid of adjectives and adverbs—once you’re there, you’re allowed to start putting them back in.
Homework: Re-write this adjective- and adverb-heavy passage. Tighten it up, choose better words, re-arrange it, add or subtract anything you wish. Whatever you think will improve it—go for it. Try not to read other responses before you write yours, and don’t worry about hurting the author’s feelings. I wrote it specifically for this exercise, and I know it’s bad. A gold star goes to the best submission.
Exhausted, weary, and worn out, Jan walked tiredly into her house at the end of a long, seemingly endless day at work. She slipped off her dark ebony shoes at the door and plodded unenthusiastically toward the kitchen. All she wanted was an icy cold soda and something sugary saccharine—maybe there was leftover cake in the shiny stainless steel refrigerator.
“Ow!” she exclaimed loudly. She lifted up her left foot to examine curiously what had caused her such sudden, sharp, acute pain. Embedded firmly in the tender flesh of her heel was one minuscule Lego, left over from her young nephew’s visit the previous day before.
For extra credit, pick a few of the adjectives or adverbs above and tell why they are unnecessary.
As always, I’m interested in your reaction to the points of the lesson. Are there items you disagree with? Are there other uses of adjective or adverb abuse that you’ve noticed? Anything additional you’d like to say?
Last edited by glorybee
on Mon Jan 25, 2010 2:43 pm, edited 2 times in total.