Get rid of the adjectives? Have you gone mental?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m one of those people who frequently overwrites. I just can’t get enough of chunky adjectives, hyperbole, laying-it-on-thick, over dramatisation, theatrical adverbs and big, fat, fluffy sentences that you can really get your teeth into.

However…

I was looking at a blog by Larry Brooks on how to write the perfect novel (because that’s what I’d like to do) and I downloaded his 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters. One of his tips is to try removing all the adjectives. Naturally, my first reaction was to scoff: A story with no adjectives? That’s like a prog-rock band without the keyboards or synths. It could never work.

However…

In the name of science (I am a sci-fi writer, after all), I decided to put this to the test. So, I’ve taken a small excerpt from my book and removed the unnecessary adjectives. Let’s see what happens:

Before:

When he got back to his feet, however, his right hand crossed his body to grip the hilt of his sword. As that unique, swishing whisper of steel-on-scabbard rang through the clamour and the blade flashed into existence, the pub went instantly silent as the other officers present took a sharp, collective intake of breath. This ugly affair had now gone beyond a simple, amusing bar brawl and  fast became dangerous for all concerned. Lieutenant Lee decided it had to stop.

After:

When he got back to his feet, however, his right hand crossed his body to grip the hilt of his sword. As that sound of steel-on-scabbard rang through the clamour and the blade flashed into existence, the pub went silent as the other officers present took a(n) intake of breath. This affair had now gone beyond a bar brawl and had became dangerous for all concerned. Lieutenant Lee decided it had to stop.

Removed adjectives: unique; swishing; instantly; sharp; collective; ugly; simple; amusing; fast.

Alright, I admit it. That’s not too bad.

I’ll also admit this isn’t one of my favourite paragraphs in the book; I just chose it because it worked well for my experiment, having a good dose of adjectives sprinkled all over it.

So yes, there is something to be said for removing these words, and I like the paragraph in its fresh, unsullied, uncomplicated, stripped-down, bare-bones, Spartan, simple and adjective-free state. Plus my wife also thinks it’s better – and she’s right about most things.

However…

I do feel that, right or wrong, heavy use of adjectives is part of my writing style and to mess with one’s own writing style is sacrosanct, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, and not withstanding any of the above, I think it’s a mixture of both that will make the final cut. While I may be still be sat the fence regarding the amputation of adjectives, I do feel that the exercise will improve the paragraph, and that can only be a good thing, right?

I’d be interested to hear what you thought of the difference in the two paragraphs. Do I really need those adjectives? Do they enhance the end result, or does removing them allow the reader more space to form their own picture of what is happening?

Thanks for reading.

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15 comments on “Get rid of the adjectives? Have you gone mental?

  1. “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

    Improving your writing has little to do with style. Your wife is correct. Over-reliance on adjectives and adverbs suggests sub-optimal choices of nouns and verbs.

    When you write to your full potential is when your true style will be most evident.

    Good post. Should it have been “excerpt” and not “expert”?

    • gpeynon says:

      So very true. And in my work, there’s plenty that can be removed; although I am getting quite good at that now.

      Thanks for pointing out the mistake too. I did this for a fellow blogger recently and I was ignored, but then I did also go on to point out the funny irony in the fact that I found a typo in a post about checking your work thoroughly before posting. I guess they didn’t see the funny side…

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. The first time I was told to delete all adverbs in my writing, I rebelled . . . but I started paying attention to how much I used them as a descriptive crutch, and I came to the conclusion that I was, indeed, overusing them. As an editor years later, I find the best writers are those who use adverbs and adjectives sparingly.

    • gpeynon says:

      Yes, ’tis a remark I hear quite a lot, and like giving up a bad habit, I am slowly coming round to the idea. I seem to find that as I write, I litter the work with these little monsters. Then, on reviewing, it’s where I find I’ve got too many and reduce it (hopefully) to just a handful of the more powerful ones.

      Thanks for your input and taking the time to comment.

  3. Kate Loveton says:

    Ah, the challenge of weeding out the unnecessary adverb! 🙂 This is a daily struggle for me; I love my adverbs. And yet – my writing seems much crisper when I limit their use. The same is true of your second paragraph. Much better – crisper. Succinct. Yet says it all.

    Glad I discovered your blog. Like it very much.

    • gpeynon says:

      I’m glad you discovered my blog too, and the follow is mutual: We seem to be in the similar positions.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your input on my paragraph. Yes, I think it is better overall. I purposely chose a flowery excerpt for this post, and not all my stuff is like this, but I shall definitely look at my second draft with a special ‘red pen’ configured for the sole purpose of removing adverbs and adjectives. (But not much) 😉

  4. M. C. Dulac says:

    I’ve also read that you should never use any words to describe speech except for “said” and “asked”, and crazy though that sounds, it does tighten up the story!

    I think removing adjectives and adverbs makes writers look at other ways to achieve tension. So removing some at first is a good thing and then you can selectively let them back in!

    I quite like the second paragraph and agree with Lieutenant Lee that this sword fight has to stop.

    • gpeynon says:

      Yes, I also think this sounds a little crazy and tight isn’t always best. Sometimes I think these rules are made to give us an extreme that we can then work back from. Exactly like you say: remove the adjectives and then put only the best ones back in.

      Thanks for your comments and input.

  5. Tammy Salyer says:

    Really interesting experiment! I’m glad you thought of it. I decided to go ahead and try it with a random, nondialogue graf from my first novel, and the results were equally interesting. I realized a) I’m not much for adjectives in general, though I do like my adverbs, and b) dropping them can definitely add some punch to the story, particularly in scenes where you want to reader to be able to move quickly. Here are mine:

    With Adj. and Adv.: Tendrils of acrid smoke from the volume of shots fired waver through the room as I lie bleeding, my lungs struggling to expand. Lurching to the wall, I lean into it, listening. Footsteps approach quickly and cautiously. There’s no time to think, only to react. I check the soldier’s pistol and then my own. Empty, dammit! I holster mine and scan the room, but the bluish smoke conceals any other weapons. Pulling an NKT bolo from my equipment vest, I lower into a crouch beside the doorway. Black dots shoot across my vision, making it hard to concentrate, and my legs shake, wanting to spill out from under me. Yeah, engineering would have been a better choice.

    Without: Tendrils of smoke from the volume of shots fired waver through the room as I lie bleeding, my lungs struggling to expand. Lurching to the wall, I lean into it, listening. Footsteps approach. There’s no time to think, only to react. I check the soldier’s pistol and then my own. Empty, dammit! I holster mine and scan the room, but the smoke conceals any other weapons. Pulling an NKT bolo from my equipment vest, I lower into a crouch beside the doorway. Dots shoot across my vision, making it hard to concentrate, and my legs shake, wanting to spill out from under me. Yeah, engineering would have been a better choice.

    What I removed: acrid, quickly, cautiously, bluish, black

    • gpeynon says:

      Yes, it’s interesting eh?

      In your version the one that really grabs me is ‘footsteps approach’. That really works sin adjectives.

      Like I mentioned, I chose a particularly flowery excerpt for this post, but it does get me thinking about the rest of my novel and how much I could improve this aspect of it. However, it’s with an editor at the moment, so hopefully all of the chaff will soon be removed anyways.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  6. I’m very guilty of the fluffy sentence, and I do my best to go back over my writing with a real goal of removing a majority of that stay puft goodness. I think it has its place more in some genres than others, sci-fi being one where adjectives are many times necessary.

    Hemingway said that Ezra Pound was the man that made him “distrust adjectives,” something that pops into my brain when I’m writing sometimes, reminding me to ‘keep it simple.’

    I think that a mixture of the two paragraphs is the right approach. For instance, the first sentence in the first paragraph was quite awkward for me to read while it’s rewrite was more comfortable. But the emphasis on a sharp intake of breath adds to the tense feeling.

    • gpeynon says:

      Thanks a lot for the feedback, and yes, you’re right. A mix of the two is the way to go I feel, as the original does have some good stuff.

      Oh, and ‘stay puft goodness’? Love it. Great phrase.

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