Quick recap: Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns.
“A common pitfall of writing is the overuse of descriptors. When adjectives
and adverbs are used too liberally, it slows down the pace of the narrative.” /nybookeditors.com/2013/05/editing-tip-1/
Like most writers, I love words. I want my prose to sing, to excite, to charm. So I add descriptors—adjectives and adverbs—hoping they will help. Most of the time they don’t.
In his book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser offers this advice on descriptors:“Look for places where the noun contains the adjective, the verb the adverb. Not every oak has to be gnarled. Trust readers to draw that image from the noun.”
I had never thought about descriptors in this way. Where the noun contains the adjective? What? So I decided to play with some of my own writing until I finally realized what he meant.
Zinsser also said: “Prune the ‘little qualifiers. Words such as “very,” “rather,” “quite,” “a bit,” “too,” “in a sense” and dozens more clutter our prose and add very little.”
Below are two versions of the beginning of The Abode. In the first, I’ve added descriptors. In the second, I’ve taken them out.
Fel crouched on the deck, her eyes just above the top of the Silence’s railing, watching the scary pirate ship anchored quite nearby. She tried to stop her trembling. After waiting so long for this night, she’d finally been given the chance to help, too. Fel hoped she wouldn’t totally disappoint the others.
She glanced quickly to her right. Three feet away, Sam also poised carefully beneath the ship’s railing, very alert and watching. Attuned to every movement around him, Sam turned his head toward Fel, nodded once, and returned his gaze to the nearby ship.
Here’s why I don’t think the words in red need to be there:
Scary The adjective is contained in the noun. Pirate ships are scary. (“pirate” here is a necessary adjective.)
Quite: The adverb modifies another adverb, “nearby.” An unnecessary little qualifier as is too.
Her: The adjective is implied in the noun trembling. We know who’s trembling.
Totally: The adverb is contained in the verb. To disappoint, in this case, would mean lives might be lost. The word totally adds nothing to the mood or the story.
Quickly: The adverb is contained in the verb. Glancing implies quickness.
Carefully: The adverb is contained in the verb. To be poised implies a careful stance.
Very: A needless “little qualifier.”
Fel crouched on the deck, her eyes just above the top of the Silence’s railing, watching the pirate ship anchored nearby. She tried to stop trembling. After waiting so long for this night, she’d finally been given the chance to help. Fel hoped she wouldn’t disappoint the others.
She glanced to her right. Three feet away, Sam also poised beneath the ship’s railing, alert and watching. Attuned to every movement around him, Sam turned his head toward Fel, nodded once, and returned his gaze to the nearby ship.
See the difference? Version Two gives the reader the same information as Version One with fewer unnecessary words to clutter up the prose.
Questions or Comments?
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or add a comment in the Comments box. I’ll be sure to get back to you.