Boy with Bear

Mark Twain sagely advised, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.”

Here’s what you need to know about adjectives and their cousins, the adverbs: they can be your friends if you know how to use them well. If not, they can be some of your worst enemies. Trust me.

There are a handful of common mistakes that most regularly turn up in manuscripts. One of the most common is the overuse of adverbs and adjectives.

One agent hilariously asked, “Is there something unforgivably, infuriatingly obfuscatory about the unrestrained use of adjectives and adverbs?”

Consider this: The greater the number of adjectives and adverbs in writing, the harder it is to read. Too many adjectives and adverbs results in material that is full of meaningless words that do little more than add ornament and subtract meaning. Too many adjectives and adverbs make for a sluggish, flabby book. And no one wants sluggish and flabby.

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White are particularly ruthless when it comes to these types of overused qualifiers, referring to them as “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

You can’t do without adjectives and adverbs altogether—your writing will be bare as bones. (No one wants bare bones, either.) But when you use adjectives and adverbs, make sure you use them well.

Let’s look at some tips on how to do that.



Adjectives are words that describe nouns. Examples are pink, hideous, irritating, lovely, muffled, magnificent, scrawny, gorgeous, tart, and grumpy.

Let your broad-shouldered verbs and nouns do the hard work of description. Be particularly cautious in your use of adjectives that don’t have much to say in the first place: interesting, beautiful, lovely, exciting. It is your job as a writer to create beauty and excitement and interest—and when you simply say it without showing it to your reader, you’re convincing no one.

To show you how it’s done, let’s look at three variations on a theme.

Man walking down the streetSample One: Just the Facts

Greg walked down the street. He was coming to pick up his girlfriend, Pam, who was sitting on her front steps.

This states what is happening, but that is it. It does nothing to engage the reader, give any insight into the characters, or create any interest about what might happen next. It’s boring.

Sample Two: Peppered with Description

Greg, a brown-haired and brown-eyed man, about five foot eight and chubby, walked slowly down the street. He was coming to pick up Pam, his blonde-haired, buxom girlfriend who was sitting calmly on the cement steps in front of her red brick home.

This goes to the opposite extreme: it utilizes adjectives and adverbs to describe the scene. You learn that Greg has brown hair, brown eyes, is chubby, and walks slowly. Some may consider that this is painting a clear picture for the reader. In truth, it is providing too many unimportant details. Does it really matter to the story that Greg has brown eyes?

Sample Three: Good Descriptive Writing

Greg strolled down the street, the wind ruffling his shaggy brown hair. A smile lifted his cheeks when he spotted Pam waiting for him on her front steps. She flicked her long blonde hair over her shoulder and Greg sucked in his gut as he walked, once more amazed that such a beautiful woman wanted to be with him.

This one hits the nail on the head. It demonstrates the use of stronger verbs and nouns, instead of adjectives and adverbs, to create a realistic scene. This paragraph gives the information that Greg has brown hair, and is a bit chubby, but it does it in a way that engages the reader. A lot of men, less than enthusiastic about their waistlines, understand and sympathize with Greg sucking in his gut as he goes to pick up his girlfriend.

The most important difference about this last paragraph is that it delves into the emotions and intentions behind the action, not just the action itself or the physical descriptions of the characters.

The important thing to remember is that you should use adjectives only when they tell something the noun can’t. Here’s an appropriate example: He slipped into the dark alley. Not all alleys are dark, so now you know this one will be. And here’s an inappropriate one: He slipped into the narrow alley. All alleys are narrow; if they aren’t narrow, they’re called streets or roads—so the adjective isn’t telling any more than what the noun already has.



In the same way that an adjective modifies a noun, an adverb modifies a verb. An adverb usually ends with “ly.” Examples are slowly, quickly, heavily, thoughtfully.

Walking through mudGood writing is all about verbs. Verbs—words like run, carry, heft, prevail—embody action. Make verbs as specific as possible: Eat could also be nibble, devour, and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Watch for the chance to use verbs that reflect sound: the baby gurgled; the girls shrieked. Try for offbeat and unusual uses of verbs: “The crowd cascaded along the street before it was swallowed by the park.”

  • Verbs—words like run, carry, heft, prevail—embody action.
  • Verbs power your writing.
  • Consider these verbs: squander, obstruct, plunder, poach. Each is a single word, and each is freighted with meaning.
  • Good verbs don’t just tell the story; they create a picture in the reader’s mind.

When it comes to adverbs, LESS IS MORE. Too many make your reader feel s/he is wading through mud.

Here’s another problem: Many common adverbs are empty: They add little or nothing to the meaning of a sentence and only clutter your writing. Let’s be honest. When you add really to a verb, what are you genuinely adding? Is calling something very cold better than calling it frosty, frigid, or icy?


How to Get Rid of Too Many Adjectives and Adverbs

  • Cut them out altogether.
  • Find one adjective that will say as much as the two you used. President Thomas Jefferson advised, “The most valuable of our talents is that of never using two words where one will do.” George Orwell later said pretty much the same thing.
  • Find a more original, accurate, and focused adjective.
  • Beware of using words that are too obscure; you’ll confuse the reader and muddle up the meaning.
  • Find a more accurate word that makes the adverb redundant; for example, you don’t have to say running swiftly if you use the verb sprinted.
  • Pay attention to words that are automatically modified, like mountain (we know it’s big, large, huge), ant (we know it’s small, tiny), tree (we know it’s green), flower (we know it’s fragrant and beautiful).

Try this exercise:

  1. The next time you write, write one or two scenes without using any adjectives or adverbs.
  2. As you write, focus on how the right verb or noun can convey the mood or feeling you are striving for in the scene.
  3. After a few days or a week, re-read the scenes. Note how what you wrote differs from the way you usually write.
  4. Now add modifiers only where you feel they are essential to the piece.
  5. You can also do this exercise with something you have already written, removing the modifiers to see if that strengthens it.

(Photos: top, Blogspot; middle, Right This Minute; bottom, Huffington Post UK)


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