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Jan's Writing Basics #2: Beware of Adjectives and Adverbs

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's Writing Basics #2: Beware of Adjectives and Adverbs

Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 25, 2010 9:13 am

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.

Would you?

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.
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Postby Kimberly-Russell » Mon Jan 25, 2010 10:04 am

How about this, Jan?

How could eight hours at work seem like years?

As Jan wearily slipped off her shoes and plodded toward the kitchen, she perked up a bit at the thought of leftover cake.

“Ow!” interrupted the mission as pain shot up her leg and she discovered the Lego imbedded in her heel.

Hmmm…must be Noah missed one during clean-up yesterday.
Kim Russell

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 25, 2010 10:34 am

Ooh, Kim, I like it! So much tighter than the one I wrote, and with more of the desirable white space.

Have you noticed any issues with adjectives or adverbs in your own writing? Anything additional to say?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Kimberly-Russell » Mon Jan 25, 2010 10:58 am

Oh yeah, many issues. I've found out that less is more for sure. Right now I'm doing several different educational writing type things and they all point to this! Thanks, Jan.
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Postby Deconut » Mon Jan 25, 2010 12:54 pm

I am new to the forums and have only entered my second Weekly Challenge. Thanks so much for this class! I feel SO excited about writing, and it has energized every area of my life.

This is my stab at improving your paragraphs:

As Jan escaped into her house, thoughts of her grueling day were extinguished by the insistent hope that there was a slice of yesterday’s birthday cake in the fridge. As she slipped the shoes from her weary feet, she smiled faintly at the thought of adding a cold soda to the snack.

Her fantasy was interrupted by a sharp pain in her heel. “Ow!” she shouted, then picked up her foot see the culprit, a small Lego piece. “There are more birthday leftovers than just cake” she muttered to herself.

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 25, 2010 1:23 pm

Deconut wrote:As Jan escaped into her house, thoughts of her grueling day were extinguished by the insistent hope that there was a slice of yesterday’s birthday cake in the fridge. As she slipped the shoes from her weary feet, she smiled faintly at the thought of adding a cold soda to the snack.

Her fantasy was interrupted by a sharp pain in her heel. “Ow!” she shouted, then picked up her foot see the culprit, a small Lego piece. “There are more birthday leftovers than just cake” she muttered to herself.


Hi, Deconut! I really appreciate your joining in the class, and jumping in feet first with your first homework assignment!

You've definitely improved my horrible paragraphs--they're tighter now, and more interesting. I really like "grueling"--a great adjective and a salsa word to boot.

I think your paragraphs could still be tightened a little bit. You probably don't need "insistent" or "faintly" in the first paragraph, and since it's apparant that Jan's alone, you don't need "to herself" in the second. That reminds me of another thing I've noted in many Beginner stories--

Everyone, take note:

That kid should have picked up his toys, Jan thought to herself.

I'll bet you see it now, too. Who else can you think to? Don't we always think to ourselves? Drop the last two words.

Back to Deconut, now--I loved that you called the Lego a "culprit", and that you introduced a whole back story--the birthday party--in just a few words. Excellent!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Anja » Mon Jan 25, 2010 1:56 pm

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.


Another view... fwiw...

My university English teacher told us NEVER use "a lot".

A "lot" is a plot of land... like in the city... 60 x 110.

She was adamant about our not using it.

Instead, use "plenty" or "many" or be specific.... six hours.... a million dollars.... more than she could count.


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.


I don't know if this is the place to mention it, but also remember "unique" and "perfect" are already superlatives and cannot be added to or detracted from.

In other words... if something is "perfect," it is as perfect as it can be. Don't say, "The dress was the most perfect of any she had tried on." It is illogical. It is redundant.

Likewise, for "unique." If it is unique, it is one of a kind. It cannot be any more unique than it already is. Don't say, "The teapot at Bloomingdale's was more unique than the one at Macy's." It is illogical and redundant.

In both cases, the sentences need to be re-written. Don't just delete "most" or "more."

After five hours of trying on dresses, she found a perfect gown.

Bloomingdale's teapot was unique, and she preferred it over the mediocre stoneware available at Macy's.
Ann Grover

"What remains of a story after it is finished? Another story..." Eli Wiesel

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 25, 2010 2:28 pm

Anne, all I can add is a fist-pumping "Yessssss!"

I think many people believe that "unique" means something like "creative" or "interesting". Thus, "that story is very unique." It always makes me gnash my teeth.
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Postby Shann » Mon Jan 25, 2010 2:33 pm

Jan dragged into her respite after a day at the saw mill. She kicked off her shoes and stared at the fridge. “I need a Jolt and a hunk of cake,” she muttered.
She stumbled into the living room and exclaimed, “Agony, I’m in agony.” She dragged her foot closer to her face. Jan was surprised her nephew’s little Lego caused her overreaction.
“That’s what exhaustion does, I guess,” she murmured as she plopped down in her recliner.

I did this on no sleep so don’t judge too harshly. Maybe I’ll try again after some rest.
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Postby PamDavis » Mon Jan 25, 2010 2:41 pm

Exhausted, Jan walked into the refuge of her house at the end of a long day at work. She slipped off her pinching ebony shoes at the door and plodded toward the quiet kitchen. She craved a cold soda and something sweet. She hoped to find leftover cake in the ice box.

“Ow!” She raised her foot to find the source of sudden sharp pain. Imbedded in the flesh of her heel she discovered a Lego! Her visiting nephew must have left it yesterday.

Weary and worn out: Exhausted says it all
Tiredly: Repetition of Exhausted
Seemingly endless: Repetition of long
Dark: Ebony is black (dark)
Icy: Soda is cold when in a refrigerator. Writer could have mentioned adding ice cubes if wanted.
Sugary, Saccharine: Sweet usual description
Loudly: Exclaimed implies loud
Curiously: The search reveals she is curious.
Acute: Repetition of sharp
Firmly: Repetition of imbedded
Previous: Repetition of day before

I would love any instruction on dialogue writing. Thanks, Jan.

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 25, 2010 2:52 pm

Shann wrote:Jan dragged into her respite after a day at the saw mill. She kicked off her shoes and stared at the fridge. “I need a Jolt and a hunk of cake,” she muttered.
She stumbled into the living room and exclaimed, “Agony, I’m in agony.” She dragged her foot closer to her face. Jan was surprised her nephew’s little Lego caused her overreaction.
“That’s what exhaustion does, I guess,” she murmured as she plopped down in her recliner.


This one certainly improves on the wordiness of my example. I love the "Jolt and a hunk of cake". (Although if it's me we're writing about, make that Jolt a Diet Coke.)

I don't think I'd use "respite" in the first sentence. "House" is fine, or "living room".

The exclamation of "Agony, I'm in agony" feels "off" to me. Would anyone really say that? And you've got her yelling before showing us that she's stepped on something--the sequence seems slightly out of order.

The plopping and murmuring in the last sentence are great!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 25, 2010 2:58 pm

PamDavis wrote:Exhausted, Jan walked into the refuge of her house at the end of a long day at work. She slipped off her pinching ebony shoes at the door and plodded toward the quiet kitchen. She craved a cold soda and something sweet. She hoped to find leftover cake in the ice box.

“Ow!” She raised her foot to find the source of sudden sharp pain. Imbedded in the flesh of her heel she discovered a Lego! Her visiting nephew must have left it yesterday.


Lots of extra credit for you, Pam, for finding reasons to eliminate almost all of my unnecessary descriptors.

You've really cleaned up my two wordy paragraphs a great deal! The only thing I'd suggest is that you also lost "ebony". It's a ridiculous, over-the-top adjective to describe shoes, and it's not important what color the shoes are, anyway.

Now here's something that's not really the focus of this class, but for you to take a look at. When you changed my paragraphs, you now have 4 sentences that begin with "She"--3 of them in rapid succession. Care to try again, with more sentence variety?

I'll be covering dialog in later classes, to be sure--stay tuned! Thanks for doing your homework for this one so quickly.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Tricia » Mon Jan 25, 2010 3:35 pm

Hi Jan, here's my homework assignment:

Weary from a gruesome day at work, Jan ambled inside her house, removed her shoes, and trudged to the kitchen. Her mouth watered as she thought of a cola and piece of chocolate cake waiting for her in the refrigerator.

"Ow!" she yelled, grabbing her left foot. Impaled into the heel lay a tiny Lego, a painful reminder of her nephew's recent visit.


Exhausted, weary, and worn out, all have same meaning.

sugary saccharine, both mean sweet as well as cake and soda.

Many adjectives that have same meaning, only need one.
Tricia

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 25, 2010 3:42 pm

Very good, Tricia, both with the re-write and the extra credit. Your paragraphs are much tighter than mine, with great word choices.

The only one I question is 'gruesome.' If Jan is a homicide detective, her work might be gruesome, but 'gruesome' and 'weary' don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. But--who knows? Maybe she is!

Thanks for popping by, and be sure to let me know if you have specific topics you'd like me to cover here.
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Postby Soren2007 » Mon Jan 25, 2010 3:50 pm

Jan, great points. I think these things to myself alot.
“Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.” ~Dillard.

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