Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Eliminate Needless Adjectives and Adverbs

It's Wordy Wednesday, and that means...
...time for some reflections from the editor's desk!

This week I’m continuing the theme Graeme started last week – what to look for when perfecting your manuscript. I’m going to add to his list by declaring war on needless adjectives and adverbs. Too many of these words weaken your story and look amateurish. In the nineteenth century, I’ve heard, authors were paid by the word, hence the flowery prose of that era. In the twenty-first century, authors are usually paid a percentage of sales, and do not need to embellish quite so much. We also talk much more informally, and the excessive verbiage of two centuries ago becomes stilted and unnatural.

Does this mean to never use adjectives or adverbs? No, of course not. Sometimes they are absolutely necessary. But use them sparingly.

Consider the following paragraph:

Annette tossed back her curly reddish blonde hair and slammed her hand down on the dark oak desktop. She rose up on her red stiletto heels and glowered at Arthur, her dark-haired bearded protesting subordinate.

What if you wrote the following instead:

Annette tossed back her hair and slammed her hand on the desk. She stood up and glowered at Arthur, her protesting subordinate.

In which of these paragraphs does Annette come across as the powerful manager that she is? Sure, at some point you might want to insert a description of what Annette and Arthur look like, but not here, where the key point is the action. And let me also note that a manager would probably not wear red stiletto heels unless she worked in the fashion industry, or possibly publishing.

As for adverbs, many of the extraneous words Graeme posted can be used as adverbs. Words like just, some, somewhat, really, very, actually, quite, or still, are frequently unnecessary and often weaken what you’re saying. Note the difference between these two simple sentences:

She felt somewhat lonely that evening.


Her loneliness dragged at her.

The second sentence is a stronger statement.

Adverbs are frequently used when the verb is not precise enough. Whenever you see an adverb, double-check your verb. Often you’ll discover that a more powerful verb eliminates the need for the adverb.

Tom forcefully moved the papers across his desk.


Tom shoved the papers across his desk.

Be ruthless in weeding out unneeded adverbs and adjectives. Your prose will be the better for it.

Diane Breton
Content Editor
Champagne Book Group


  1. I appreciate how you point out the need to use adverbs/adjectives in the appropriate place, depending on the focus of the paragraph. We have so many words available to us for a reason; the trick is to use them most effectively. Thanks for another helpful post.

  2. Great post, Diane, and useful information. I also love Nikki's statement that we have so many words available to us (writers), the trick is to us them wisely and effectively. Oh look, adverbs. :) For me, overusing adverbs and adjectives takes away my immersion into a story and I'm not experiencing it with the characters; I'm disconnected. I like to be engaged. Too many adverbs and adjectives take away that joy.

  3. Shorter, sharper sentences truly give more power to the emotions and the action! Good post, Diane!

  4. I'm with Nikki in agreeing with you that the focus of the sentence should determine how descriptive things are. Great post, Diane.

    P.S. I think we need more red stiletto publishing events! :)

    1. Ouch. My feet hurt just thinking about red stillettos!