Six impossible things

Adjectives and adverbs

Last week I was looking at web sites and found yet another one that advocated “Never, EVER use any adjectives or adverbs!” It went so far as to advocate going through one’s work and deleting all of them.

So I decided to test that technique to see just how useful it would be. I wrote a paragraph the way I normally would, then deleted all the adjectives and adverbs. (I actually looked up the ones I was doubtful about, to be certain that I was deleting the correct parts of speech, and only those, and I didn’t rephrase anything else in the paragraph, though a couple of places could have used it.) The version with no adverbs/adjectives looked like this:

Their dinner was cooked. They ate it, chewing the meat and potatoes with determination. When they finished, Gregory thanked their hostess with politeness, and they left, before she could invite them to stay. One meal was in the name of guest-duty; beds and fireplaces were not.

It’s a bit bland, in my opinion, and there are a couple of places where the phrasing needs to be tweaked because removing a key adjective makes it sound awkward or lumpy (and really, “thanked their hostess with politeness” looks as if I were trying to avoid saying “thanked her politely”), but it isn’t unreadable. A lot of folks like this kind of bare-bones prose. The trouble is that the paragraph I originally wrote went like this:

Their meager dinner was poorly cooked. They ate it anyway, chewing the half-raw meat and charred potatoes with determination. When they finally finished, Gregory thanked their hostess with insincere politeness, and they left quickly, before she could invite them to stay overnight. One barely-edible meal was tolerable in the name of guest-duty; lice-ridden beds and smoking fireplaces were not.

OK, that original version probably has more adjectives and adverbs than it really needs, but removing all of them takes out key information about the meal, the interaction between Gregory and the hostess, and the motivation for the characters’ actions (both in eating the meal and in leaving as soon as they could reasonably get away). The version with all the adjectives and adverbs removed does not say the same thing as the one with adjectives.

But is there some other, less adjective-and-adverb-ridden way of getting the same information to the reader? The usual advice is to replace generic nouns and verbs with more specific, evocative ones, but it’s not as simple as that. English doesn’t have a common, specific word for “lice-ridden bed” or “fireplace that smokes” or even for “clogged-up chimney that will make the fireplace smoke.” The best I could do was something like this:

The hostess served them one rabbit and three potatoes covered in ashes. The six men picked at their portions and chewed with determination. When they finished their “meal,” Gregory smoothed his expression as he offered their hostess the thanks and appreciation he did not mean. They hurried out, before she could invite them to stay. Guest-duty had obliged them to stay for a meal, but if the beds and fireplaces lived up to her cooking, they wouldn’t survive the night.

This is a lot closer to what I wanted to say than the just-delete-the-adjectives version, and there are parts of it I like better than the all-adjectives-all-the-time version, but some of it still doesn’t work the way I want it too. I couldn’t find a way of saying that the meal wasn’t just skimpy, it was also badly cooked, partly raw and partly charcoal. You get a hint of that in the way the men pick at their portions and have to force themselves to eat, but there could be other reasons for that behavior, and not having the lousy cooking spelled out means that the final line doesn’t have the punch I want, even with the exaggeration about surviving the night (especially since I’m still leaving out the adjectives “lice-ridden” and “smoking”). I also don’t like using scare quotes in my fiction except in dialog.

Finally, this version is 80 words; the one with the adjectives and adverbs is 59. For one paragraph, that’s not terrible, but adding 35% to the word count throughout is not usually the best idea – I’d end up with something that feels padded or that puts more emphasis/word-count on things I don’t want emphasized.

Judging from my three samples, I conclude that 1) simply deleting all the adjectives and adverbs is a bad, bad idea; 2) rewriting to eliminate all adjectives and adverbs is better, but still not the best thing to do; 3) a combination version that uses some adjectives/adverbs but rewrites to avoid others is probably going to get me the best result; and 4) deleting and rewriting may possibly be useful steps to get me to that final version, but I definitely don’t want to just stop there.

The final version I came up with looks like this:

The hostess served them one rabbit and three potatoes. The six men picked at their portions, searching for bits that were neither raw nor charred. When they finished, Gregory thanked their hostess with polite insincerity, and they hurried out before she could invite them to stay overnight. One barely-edible meal was tolerable in the name of guest-duty; smoking fireplaces and lice-ridden beds were not.

Sixty-four words, which is not much more than the adjective-heavy one but far less than the one that tried to do it all without any adjectives or adverbs. And it says what I intended, and more vividly, I think.

  1. I seem to recall Mark Twain having written somewhere that every time a writer wants to precede an adjective with “very”, he should add “damned” instead. Then the editor will delete all the “damned”s and the prose will read much better.

  2. My thought looking at this is “what are the important details?” Is it that the meat was rabbit, or that the meat was undercooked while the potatoes were burnt? (vs both the meat and potatoes having both burnt and raw bits) That the beds were lice-ridden and the fireplace smoking? (as opposed to them being unpleasant in some other way)

    In this case the exact details probably don’t matter, but it’s the sort of thing I tend to over-think.

  3. I notice that the final version requires the reader to do a bit more work of the sort I don’t always do as a reader. I.e. one rabbit and three potatoes may be meager fare for six men, but I won’t necessarily notice if I’m just reading along not doing the division in my head. Oops. (Though I do get the general impression anyway.)

    • Meant to say earlier that I’m in the same boat as Dev. As a reader just reading for fun, I would have completely missed the short-rations implication of the later versions. (But then, I quite liked the all-adjectives version, so my taste is not the mainstream. Now there’s a shocker.)

  4. Ursula LeGuin may be the origin of this idea (or if not, maybe she should be): in her quite handy writing book “Steering the Craft”, she proscribes an exercise called “Chastity” where you do exactly this, write or rewrite a passage without adjectives or adverbs, and mentions she’s used it in most of the writer’s workshops she’s taught.

    LeGuin’s pretty clear on the purpose, though: to make one, as a writer, *aware* of how often one uses adjectives and adverbs. Her metaphor, if I’m remembering correctly, is that they’re like fat or sugar in cooking: easy and addictive, to be used with more caution than they are, but no one but a masochist would cook and serve food that uses *none*.

    I plan to run a word-seach for “ly” and a list of certain other words over my book when it’s done; I’m noticing, as I write, that I really use adverbs and qualifiers sort of quite a lot more than I actually probably should. *grin* I don’t “hear” those words when I write; they’re filler, the equivalent of “um”, and I put them in automatically. But I won’t take *all* the adverbs out by a long shot. I just want to look at them and make sure they’re not “um”s.

  5. I have never understood why the “never use adverbs/adjectives” rule has so much enthusiastic support. Sure, it’s possible to wildly overdo, especially with adverbs, but that just means the rule should be “don’t use adverbs badly”. Then again, I suspect most writing rules could be reduced to “don’t do X badly”.

    • Maybe, in our genre anyway, it’s a long-standing reaction away from the pulp style of the early 20th century? Take Murray Leinster, for example; I love his stories, but the man could not use an unadorned “said”. Either he’d tack on an adverb or he’d use a synonym out of the “Said” Book (which was a real book, I saw it in the library once).

      • It may be a near-universal human reaction to respond to excess in one direction by embracing extremity in the opposite direction. Certainly I’ve seen this “rule” pushed in non-SFF venues.

        (I may have to go looking for the Said Book.)

  6. I go with Brook Langdon’s concept that the main kernel of a sentence — which vaguely means the main subject and predicate — should have few modifiers, but other parts, like prepositional phrases and dependent clauses, can be rich with them.

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