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The Craft of Writing II: Adverbs and Adjectives

September 10, 2010

The Craft of Writing II: Adverbs and Adjectives
(or The Brown Fox Jumps Quickly Over the Lazy Dog)

Adverbs and adjectives are extremely important aspects of good descriptive writing. It’s how we, as the reader, know what things look like, how they smell, where they’re going, and how they’re getting there. I disagree with the current trend I’ve noticed of removing as many of those descriptive words as possible from manuscripts. I believe it leaves the writing sparse and dry and lifeless. On the other hand, it is possible to go too far. It’s the fine balance—that middle ground reached—that is the hallmark of a good author.

Adjectives

Let’s return to 8th grade English for just a moment. An adjective is a word that modifies a noun. You can think of adjectives as the answer to the question ‘Which one?’ or ‘How many?’ or ‘What kind?’.

Which folder? The green folder.

How many boys? Two boys.

What kind of person? A trustworthy person.

This a necessary part of speech, particularly in writing, because it creates the tangible, visible world. You’d never enjoy a book that describes a room as: There was a bed, a table, and a desk. That description of the room calls to mind a very bare space with quite generic furniture because we’re told nothing beyond the basic contents. Maybe that’s appropriate for the story, but usually, it isn’t. You don’t have to describe the wood grain on the bedpost if it’s not relevant to the story. You don’t have to spend an entire paragraph describing someone’s outfit if it’s not important to the progression of the story (or development of the character).

I, personally, treat description as an impressionist paining. You set down broad strokes to suggest the setting, and let the reader fill in the rest. For instance, it’s enough to say the man wore a black silk shirt with a gold sash without dropping the designer’s name or mentioning how many buttons or how the sash is tied or any minute details like that which have no bearing on the story itself. That way, when you do list a minute detail, the reader knows it’s important. If the sash being tied in a particular way clues the POV character into the fact it was the same knot tied around the dead man’s throat, it might be worth mentioning. Otherwise, leave it out. It’s not important.

Repetition of description is a pet peeve of mine. If you say Sam’s eyes are green at the beginning of your novel, you don’t need to say it again at every reference to his eyes. Say it once at the beginning, and again near the middle to remind the reader of the fact, and don’t do it again unless it’s integral to the story that someone notice his eye color. Description is wonderful, and it adds a necessary tactile depth to a story, but it can be overdone. Unless there is a seriously shift in a character’s description, you only need to remind the reader once or twice throughout the novel. A gentle, subtle poke to refresh the mental image of the characters and/or setting.

Adverbs

Let’s return to 8th grade English once more, shall we? An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Just like adjectives, adverbs can be thought of as answers to questions like ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ and ‘To what degree?’.

How did he walk? He walked carefully.

When did she arrive? She arrived early.

To what degree was he prepared? He was completely prepared.

Adverbs are a seriously misunderstood part of speech. They tend to be abused or neglected. I like to chalk it up to editors wanting to drop word counts or authors who don’t know how to properly use them. Adverbs are like spices in a kitchen. You miss them when they’re not there, but if you’re not careful, you can add way too much and it ruins the dish.

In many cases a verb-adverb combination can be replaced by a single verb that is more descriptive. For instance, ‘watched closely’ can be replaced by ‘scrutinized’. You don’t need to necessarily pull out your thesaurus for every combo, but if you catch yourself using adverbs frequently, it might be time to expand your vocabulary a little to avoid the simplistic verb-adverb combinations.

There are many places, though, that the verb-adverb usage is the only way to get the meaning of the sentence across. For example, ‘he walked quickly’ would have a completely different meaning if you wrote the sentence as ‘he ran’ or ‘he jumped’ or ‘he skipped’. Walking quickly calls to mind a specific action for which there isn’t an adequate singular verb. It isn’t lazy or extraneous writing to use an adverb when it’s appropriate.

When it is appropriate to use an adverb, though, make sure you use the adverb. There has been a growing trend of writers substituting adjectives in place of adverbs. For example, ‘he ran that quick’ instead of ‘he ran that quickly‘ or ‘she felt bad’ instead of ‘she felt badly‘.

And the grand dame of this atrocity is the systematic erasure of the word ‘well’. ‘Good’ is not a substitute. ‘Good’ is an adjective, ‘well’ is an adverb. Unless you are engaged in humanitarian relief efforts, ‘I’m doing good’ is not an acceptable statement. It is certainly not an answer to the question, ‘How are you?’. Timmy did not ‘do good’ on his spelling test, and Sally did not ‘feel good’ when she woke up.

Now, the key to remember with this is, dialog has its own set of rules. We say, ‘I feel good’, even though it’s not grammatically correct. While I do believe that some characters will rightly say ‘I feel good’ instead of ‘I feel well’, I don’t think as many would as we’d like to believe. Be conscious of who is saying what how, and shy away from making such mistakes within actual narrative.

So, it is ‘bad writing’, but one would ‘write badly’. Keep that in mind, please. Use adverbs where you should, and don’t be afraid of describing something. Yes, pages and pages of description is tedious and boring, but setting a scene or introducing a character is not the time to be ripping out descriptive phrases. It’s what enriches the world you’re crafting for the reader. Adverbs give a sense of movement to the written word, add to the motion, and just like adjectives, they enhance the imaginary world and draw a reader deeper into the story.

Use them wisely, but don’t abuse or neglect them. There is a middle ground where adverbs and adjectives are sprinkled here and there, spicing up the blandness of prose.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alisha permalink
    October 9, 2010 10:02 pm

    Just a quick note to point out that your example, ‘she felt badly,’ is akin to saying, ‘I’m doing good.’ If she felt badly, that means there was something wrong with her sense of touch. Because feel is one of those verbs like ‘look,’ ‘taste,’ ‘sound,’ etc., it takes an adjective rather than an adverb in this case. ‘Bad’ isn’t modifying ‘felt.’ It’s modifying ‘she.’

    For reference: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/537/02/ See Rule #3.

  2. October 9, 2010 10:10 pm

    Even reading the style link you provided, I would use bad if you were referring to her state of being, but when you feel badly about something, I still believe you’d use the adverb. It may have simply been a bad example, but I disagree 100% with you about ‘doing good’ v ‘doing well’. ‘I am doing good’ means ‘I am performing good works’. ‘Doing’ is not a sense word, despite the slang way in which it is used in this sentence. 🙂

  3. Alisha permalink
    October 9, 2010 10:17 pm

    I wasn’t actually disagreeing with your description of ‘doing good.’ It absolutely means doing good works as opposed to being in a good state. But ‘well’ in this case is relative to ‘bad.’ They’re both adjectives, which is the important part. Consistency is the necessity here. If, as you say (and I agree), an adjective modifies a noun, then it must be, ‘she felt bad.’ ‘Bad’ is an adjective. ‘Badly’ is an adverb and therefore cannot modify a noun. It can only modify the verb in this sentence. Regardless of whether you’re using the word to describe her state of being, it’s being used to modify a noun. What you’re describing is her feeling, which is a noun. You wouldn’t say, ‘she felt happily,’ unless she were joyfully touching something. You’d say, ‘she felt happy.’ It’s the same exact sentence just with a different descriptor.

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