Writing Advice: Use Fewer Adjectives

By Nicholas Klacsanzky

Hi everyone.

In the novel “Plague” by Albert Camus there is an interesting character, Grand, whom a lot of aspiring writers should pay attention to. Grand is a regular elderly clerk, who lived a boring and monotonous life, and whose only hobby and resilience was to keep on writing a novel about a beautiful amazon riding in the woods. Doesn’t sound bad, right?

No. Because what Grand was writing sounded like a mess. See for yourself: “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”

“Oh, my!” someone might say. “Why do you think it’s horrible? It’s lovely! So flowery, so descriptive.”

Yep. And this is Grand’s problem–and not just his problem, but also the problem many beginner authors make: too many adjectives, adverbs, or in general–descriptions.

On one side, it breaks the famous “Show, do not tell” rule. Well, in Grand’s case, it’s not even a proper explanation–his descriptions are too vague. But this is what other authors do as well: unable to evoke feelings in their readers, these authors pile up adjectives hoping that it would help them transfer their feelings to the audience better. Direct descriptions only name what is in an author’s head, but do not describe it. For you, a “fine morning” might mean sunny and warm, for me–misty and foggy.

The same refers to adverbs. Oh, why can’t people limit themselves with “he thought,” or “she cried?” Why do you need to insert all those fancy adverbs?

“Jenny,” he said firmly, tightly holding her warm fingers in his hands.
“Yes, John?” Jenny looked at him tenderly with her shiny eyes.
He waited anxiously, then said in a quiet voice:
“Would you marry me?”
For a second, she froze, and then screamed happily.
“Oh, John! Yes, I will marry you!”

Adverbs convey nothing. People mostly think in visual images; no matter how many times I repeat “fearfully,” you will not feel frightened. If I repeat “passionately” 200 times, you will not feel anything special. However, the moment I show you a picture of an ugly monster, or a beautiful man or woman, your body will react with emotions.

Thus, whenever you want to make your readers feel in a certain way, your task is to create images in their heads. If your character is nervous, don’t say: “John was nervous”; instead, say something like, “His forehead was cold with sweat.” Don’t say, “His handshake was unpleasant”; say, “His handshake felt like he made me squeeze slime.”

I hope you got the principle. Good luck!


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