Adjectives are highly controversial among literary creators – and adverbs along with them. Both types of words have the reputation of being ballast, frills that unnecessarily inflate a text. That’s why texts with plenty of adjectives and adverbs are considered cheesy, even inferior to some.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I shout that from the rooftops!” says Stephen King in “Life and Writing” (Heyne Verlag 2011).
And Mark Twain writes: “If you hit an adjective, kill it […]. No, I don’t mean outright, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.” (Carlo De Vito (ed.): Mark Twain’s Notebooks: Journals, Letters, Observations. Black Dog & Leventhal 2015)
Stupidly, novels and short stories are supposed to be vividly written, descriptive, and multifaceted. Narrative texts are supposed to crank up the mental cinema and draw readers into the story. But how can this be achieved without adjectives and adverbs? Because despite the fact that they are considered ballast, it is precisely these two types of words that bring a landscape to life in the mind’s eye, that make it possible to vividly describe a scene or a character.
So how many adjectives should there be?
Personally, I agree with Mark Twain: not all adjectives, nor all adverbs, are superfluous ballast. But which adjectives are dispensable? Which ones do I throw out when revising and which ones stay in? Which adverbs make a scene vivid and lively and which are superfluous?
For some of the adjectives and adverbs, the decision is easy. They are superfluous at first glance and should be thrown out when revising. This applies, for example, to adjectives and adverbs that do not add any new information to the other words. For example, if I write about a green meadow, I can do without the color in this case. A meadow is generally green, so why bother putting it into words? But if the meadow has not received any water in midsummer and looks yellowed, then it is worth describing it: the withered meadow.
Similarly with the following example: “No,” she whispered softly. Whispering is always quiet, so why add another description to the verb? The adverb quietly is completely superfluous here. The following examples, on the other hand, are different – here the adverb adds yet another piece of information to the verbal phrase: in what emotion the character uttered the word.
“No,” she whispered in horror, or “No,” she whispered in amusement. In both cases, the adverb provides essential information that makes it easier for readers to understand the situation.
If adjectives and adverbs abound in our texts, we should always ask ourselves whether the words we have chosen make the text stronger and more vivid. Or whether they are superfluous at this point because they add no further information to the other words. If adjectives and adverbs merely repeat what is already known, then they are superfluous and can be deleted.
Adjectives and adverbs are like the salt in the soup: Without these word types, the descriptions remain bland. If there are too many, the text becomes unpalatable. The right dose makes the good text. Not necessary to mention – and yet I do 😉 – tastes are different. What seems too much for some is too little for others.
That’s why all writers have to find their own way. They have to decide for themselves what is the right measure, that is, what is their own right measure. When a “lot” becomes a “too much” and when a “little” makes the text seem brittle and uninspired.
Many good and successful books show that there is a wide range: There are excellent texts with few adjectives and adverbs, but there are also excellent texts that have plenty of them. This in no way describes the difference between literary novels and mainstream novels. Among literary novels, there are texts with abundant adjectives and adverbs. And even among the authors of the so-called mainstream novels, there are quite a few who tell wonderful stories with very few adjectives and adverbs.
Here are some examples to encourage you to question your use of adjectives and adverbs in order to develop and improve your own writing style.
J.K. Rowling is known for having numerous adjectives and adverbs in her books.
Harry looked over to the Slytherin table and saw a dreadful ghost sitting there, with blank, staring eyes, an emaciated face, and a cloak splattered with silvery blood. He was sitting in the seat next to Malfoy, who, Harry noted with amusement, was not happy about the seating arrangement.
(Joanne K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Carlsen 2000, page 137. Translated from English by Klaus Fritz.)
Suzanne Collins’ language, on the other hand, is often very reduced, using few adjectives and adverbs.
The forest is changing and the pines now alternate with various other species of trees, some of which I know and others I have never seen. Suddenly I hear a noise and draw my knife to defend myself if necessary, but I have only startled a rabbit.
“It’s good to see you,” I whisper. Where there’s one rabbit, there could be hundreds just waiting to walk into my traps.
(Suzanne Collins: The Tributes of Panem. Oetinger 2009, page 171. German by Sylke Hachmeister and Peter Klöss).