First things first: what exactly are adjectives and adverbs?
An adverb is a word that functions as a modifier of a verb, adjective, other adverb, or adverbial phrase, as very in very nice, much as in much more impressive, and quickly as in he ran quickly. They relate to what they modify by indicating place (I promise to be there later), time (Do your homework now! ), manner (She sings beautifully), circumstance (He accidentally dropped the glass when the bell rang), degree (I’m very happy to see you), or cause (I draw, although badly).
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun, primarily by describing a particular quality of the word they are modifying, as wise in a wise grandmother, or perfect in a perfect score, or handsome in He is extremely handsome. (from dictionary.reference.com)
Many beginning writers throw dressy words into their narrative writing, thinking these words will create better images. But such superficial flourishes often turn out to be colorless and even redundant. Readers must hack away at the cluttered writing to find the point, causing frustration and confusion.
For instance, look at the adverbs such as “adoringly” or “quickly” in the following sentences:
She caressed him adoringly.
The robber ran out of the bank quickly.
In these two sentences, the verbs (action word) provide the acting and the emotion. The adverbs are merely repeating what the verbs have already communicated. Think about it: is it possible to caress someone without doing it adoringly? Is it possible to run out of a bank without being quick? If the adverb and the verb it modifies are essentially saying the same thing, leave it out. Both of the adverbs above are redundant words that only weaken what they hope to modify.
Redundant phrases aren’t the only problem with adverbs. They also will most likely be a reason your instructor will write, “Telling – you need to SHOW.” In the previous example–
She caressed him adoringly –
The writer is telling how she caressed him (adoringly) instead of showing, such as–
She caressed his face, her hands gliding along the contours of his jaw and along his brow, as if she were reading his face in braille.
Wow. Is it hot in here? This description is showing what “adoringly” can’t even envision.
Adjectives present the same problem as adverbs do, only they can be even more annoying. Take the following sentence, for instance:
The moon was big and bright tonight, lighting up the dark, deserted forest, casting a bright, white, translucent shadow across tall, majestic evergreens as I walked within the glowing, wonderful, thick woods. (from Writing on the Wall)
Does the laundry list of adjectives add anything to improve the visual? The only thing the adjectives do is create a longer, more awkward sentence.
Let’s take them out, and see what you think:
The moon was bright tonight, lighting up the forest, casting a translucent shadow across the evergreens as I walked within the woods.
Better? It’s more specific, they sentence is clearer, and it flows better.
Let’s take the improved sentence, and make it even tighter:
The moon cast a translucent shadow across the evergreens as I walked within the forest.
Best. It’s tighter, flows better, and creates a much more precise image.
When in doubt, strike it out.
Now You Try!
Take the following sentences and eliminate any redundant or unneeded adverbs and adjectives. You may need to incorporate more effective nouns.
- I walked slowly and methodically through the majestic, lush, green hills, the scent of fresh, spring grass smelled very, very nice.
- The shiny, new, red Mustang sped hurriedly through the busy intersection, the loud, wailing police siren in quick pursuit.
- The chef stood lazily over the grill, slowly and wearily flipping the greasy burgers as he carefully balanced the long, gray ash of his cigarette over the dangerously hot stove.