Thursday, September 2, 2010

Is your prose too “pretty” for your readers?

Last night I met with a friend to discuss the story she’s recently written. We talked about how the misuse of adjectives and adverbs can affect our prose in a negative way. Lucky for me, I kept an article from William Noble, author of Noble’s Book of Writing Blunders (2006). Below you’ll read the abridged version of his article originally published on July 4, 2010 in the Writer’s Digest.

Learn how adjective and adverbs create redundancy and promote lazy writing and see how you can make your writing direct, vivid, and descriptive without making your readers want to get rid of your book.

Raymond Carver acquired a reputation as a short story master due to his attention to detail. Rarely, if ever, was a word or a series of words purposeless and uncertain. His prose was tight and emphatic, and his phrases never dangled or were superfluous. His craftsmanship honed his work to its essence. There aren’t many Raymond Carvers in this world, but each of us can learn some important things from the way he approached his writing. Sentence structure and punctuation were crucial, the proper word was essential, and what was omitted as important as what was inserted.

This brings us to adverbs and adjectives. Clearly, Carver would cast a suspicious eye on these forms of speech because many times they add little to what is already on the page. Frequently, they are not important, and in a short story, that means they have no business there.

Many inexperienced writers throw in “pretty” words to make their prose more dramatic and meaningful. But such cosmetic touch-up often turns out to be redundant or simply uninspiring. Take adverbs such as “lovingly” or “speedily” or “haltingly.” They each point to some circumstance or emotion or movement, yet do they offer solid impact? He whispered to her lovingly… She zoomed around the oval speedily… He stuttered haltingly…

In the last two instances, the verbs themselves provide the acting and the emotion in the sentences; the adverbs merely underscore what the verb has already described. Is it possible to “zoom” without doing so speedily … or to “stutter” without doing it in halting fashion? These are redundancies, and they do little for the prose except to give it an awkward cast.

The stone sank quickly… The fire truck bell clanged loudly… How else would a stone sink but quickly? How else would a fire truck bell clang but loudly? The key is to gauge the relationship of the adverb and the verb it modifies: Are they saying essentially the same thing? If so, there is a redundancy, and the adverb should come out—fast!

It isn’t only redundancies that adverbs can generate. They also encourage lazy writing. Take the earlier example, “he whispered to her lovingly …” I suppose he could whisper many things, including words, which are loving, but somehow the adverbial tail seems a lazy way out. By using “lovingly” the writer is really—and we’ve heard this before—telling instead of showing. Far more dramatic would be to write:

He whispered words of love … my sweet, dear lover, my angel … he purred his contentment, his joy …

No adverb here, and the drama is enhanced. I’ve shown those things that he whispered lovingly, and the reader has to be more involved in the story.

It has become a cliché to use the adverbial tail time and time again. In addition to minimizing the dramatic effect of the action, it grinds on the reader’s ear (remember, readers “hear” as well as read). All those words ending in “-ly,” not doing much for the sentence, not creating much of a word picture … Who could blame readers for wondering why the words were there in the first place?

And who could blame these same readers for laying the book aside? “Most adverbs,” says William Zinsser, “are unnecessary.” He’s right. And when it’s important to prettify your prose, there are better ways to do it.

Are you guilty of prettifying your prose?


  1. Love this article. It's one of the most popular blunders emerging writers make, but it's also a good reminder for those of us who have been writing for awhile.

  2. Ciao Laura,
    Thanks for your thoughts on this post. I need to be reminded about these rules from time to time. I get carried away when I'm inspired writing a story. ;)

  3. It's an interesting problematic because it's one that separates a lot of published writers from frustrated café writers. The important is not to fall back on a lifeless declarative sentence once you strip adverbs and adjectives. And God knows it's not easy.

    Very pertinent example with Carver, who's philosophy was to do more with less. Enlightening post, thank you!

  4. Hi Ben,
    Happy to hear you liked the post. Yep! A little reminder doesn't hurt whether you're a published writer or not.

  5. Good reminder for all writers. Thanks. Have a great weekend.

  6. Hi Carol,
    Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy the long weekend!

  7. I was taught about such "weak" writing when I was very young (I'm now 70!) and what I learned and read is stuck in my brain. I've recently read some books, some self-published, that are filled with such weak writing. To get through the books, I have to skim over the wordiness and focus on the story that is often very good and the only thing that keeps me reading.

    Your post is an excellent reminder, and makes me want to re-read some of the stories and essays in the Raymond Carver that's on my book shelf.

    I found you from KarenG's BBQ and glad I did. I blog about writing, my book about to be published, my life as a caregiver to a disabled daughter (we live in Harrisonburg VA USA), and how we're on in this journey together. I hope you'll come over and meet me too.

  8. Hi Claudia,
    I came from KarenG's BBQ...and I am glad because I absolutely love your blog. It has very interesting notes and a lot to learn from.

    Nice to meet you :-)


  9. What a wonderful article. I tend to be hypervigilant about adverbs and adjectives when I write. I think they are like swear words -- they are ineffective when you overuse them but a well-placed one can be explosive.

    I'm glad we found each other through the BBQs!

  10. Excellent post, very well said. I'll tweet it if I can figure out the tweet button thing. ;)
    Have a great weekend, and thanks for the follow!

  11. Dear Ann,
    Thank you for joining my blog and for leaving a message. I'm following you too. I'll definitely come often to visit. Nice meeting you too!

    Hi Doris,
    Thank you for your kind words. Happy to hear you find my blog interesting.
    I'll stop by your community soon.

    Hi Jenna,
    Please make yourself at home ;)
    Now that we're following each other's blogs I hope we can exchange thoughts & comments.

    Hi Michelle,
    Thank you for joining my blog. Welcome!
    Have a lovely weekend and hope to see you here again.

  12. Guilty as charged! But I'm working on it. Sometimes I find it hard to leave them out, but I allow myself to use them temporarily to keep the momentum going in my draft. Then I go back and rewrite those sections when I'm in editing mode.

    Nice to meet you! I love your blog.

  13. Hi Suzie,
    Welcome to my blog! I think we're all guilty of overusing adjectives/adverbs at one point or another. The important thing is to admit and recognize when we're indulging in them ;)
    Happy to hear you like my blog. Hope we can continue exchanging comments ;)

  14. Hi Claudia,

    Popped over to check out your the useful advice! You've got a great way of explaining things so they really make sense without sounding trite or condescending...I'm now a follower:)

  15. Hi Anaya,
    Welcome to my community! Thanks for joining. I hope you find my tips useful.