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“Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.” from Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
Every writing tool has its use, but as Ursula points out, it’s easy to get carried away with descriptive words. In her short, snappy writing guide, she offers some practical advice:
“When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a gowling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid….
“Some adjectives and adverbs have become meaningless through literary overuse. ‘Great’ seldom carries the weight it ought to carry. ‘Suddenly’ seldom means anything at all; it’s a mere transition device, a noise – ‘He was walking down the street. Suddenly he saw her.’ ‘Somehow’ is a weasel word; it means the author didn’t want to bother thinking out the story – ‘Somehow she just knew….’ ‘Somehow they made it to the asteroid….’ When I teach science fiction and fantasy writing I ban the word. Nothing can happen ‘somehow.’
“…some conscious prose stylists use adjectives as poets do: the adjective’s relation to the noun is unexpected, farfetched, forcing the reader to stop and make the connection. This mannerism can be effective, but in narration, it’s risky. Do you want to stop the flow? Is it worth it?
“I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.”
Ursula goes on to offer a helpful exercise titled “Chastity” that we all might benefit from:
“Write a paragraph to a page (200 – 350 words) of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue. The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or action, using only verbs, nouns, pronouns, and articles. Adverbs of time (then, next, later, etc.) may be necessary, but be sparing. Be chaste….The first time you do the exercise, write something new. After that you might want to try ‘chastening’ a passage you’ve already written. It can be interesting.”
What a fruitful exercise this may prove to be as we all write on!