Confessions of an Editor: The Eternal Evil Of Adverbs & Adjectives

Before I start this screed, let me confess that I’m as guilty as anyone of using adverbs and adjectives. Usually when I am hyper-caffeinated, I find myself pouring them onto the page at a rate that would make you weep. So I don’t write this to say, “Be like me–I’m just as cool as they come!”. Rather, I write this to remind MYSELF not to do these things, and you too–one day you’ll send some copy my way and we’d both prefer to avoid the unpleasantness which is sure to come if your work is rife with adverbs and other nonsense.

To begin, let’s define adverbs and adjectives. The Capital Community College grammar page is most helpful here–refer to it often. I love the short-and-sweet definition found on that page. Adverbs are words that modify a verb, adjective or another adverb. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.

What the page doesn’t say is that in many cases, adverbs and adjectives are STUPID and POINTLESS. Consider that last line, for example. It may be informative to say adverbs are pointless, but STUPID? That’s me getting wordy again. It would be more accurate to say adverbs and adjectives are often needless words.

Clear, concise writing demands brevity. If you feel the need for more descriptive prose, consider this line from James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand;

“He walked. He grabbed at the cell bars. He anchored himself.”

That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? We don’t need to know what happened next. This line tells us everything. He’s trapped in jail and getting ready for something to happen. Now let’s read this as it would be submitted by some writers you probably know;

“He walked quickly and grabbed at the cell bars. He braced himself nervously.”

The power of the line vanishes. Let’s look at another one.

“Jimmy took a painful blow to the face. He staggered drunkenly down the corridor, arms flailing wildly.”

Now when we cut out all the crap:

“Jimmy took a blow to the face. He staggered down the corridor.”

Or perhaps even better:

“Jimmy was punched in the face hard enough to send him staggering down the corridor.”

Folks, in real life, nobody “drives quickly” or “runs hurriedly”, but these examples are only one way adjectives and adverbs get used and abused. One of my all time pet peeves is when some dingbat on the news describes a “deadly shooting spree”. This annoys me because there is NO SUCH THING as a “life-giving shooting spree”. How about those “raging forest fires”? Anybody want to stand around and watch a timid fire burn the landscape?

The one exception I make to all this is when you have these words coming out of a person’s mouth. People do NOT speak in precise english. This is where all the idiosyncracies and bad grammar should be used to full effect. Stephen King is THE MAN when it comes to this. His local yokel characters often speak in a mishmash that’s part Beverly Hillbillies and part Jerry Falwell.

The gist of all this is that you should cut the crap–adverbs and adjectives–wherever possible, especially in article writing and query letters. Scour your copy for these filler words and see how quickly your copy starts reading better. You’ll probably be amazed.