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"Cut All the Adjectives & Adverbs". Why it's Nonsense, and When it Isn't

Cut all the adjectives & adverbs" is right up there with "Show, don't Tell", as one of the first "rules" that new writers get told, and for similar reasons. And although it's perhaps responsible for more bland, threadbare writing than almost any other phenomenon except the ghost of Hemingway, it's not entirely nonsense either, any more than Hemingway is. 

The truth is, writing would be impossible if we couldn't use adjectives, adverbs and adverbial and adjectival phrases. But although you'll never get me to say that you "should" cut them, there is a whiff of good writerly sense somewhere at the root of it. It's not necessarily a bad idea to take a long, hard look at the adjectives of quality and adverbs of manner in your drafts, and seeing if the effect they're trying for would be better achieved another way.

Let's start with the basics, for which I must thank David Crystal's entirely brilliant books Rediscover Grammar, which is about how language works, and Making Sense of Grammar, about how to use how it works to your advantage. Whether you're old enough to have had the old grammar beaten into you, the generation (like me) who learnt little grammar except, unhelpfully, via foreign or ancient languages, or the younger generation who are gaining (or suffering) from the pendulum swinging the other way again but with a new vocabulary of terms, I can't recommend Crystal's books highly enough.

ADJECTIVES

AN ADJECTIVE is a word which changes or adds to the meaning of a noun: red, hopeless, French, happier, contemplative, fancy, your, which, quick, sad. Some words function as an adjective when they have another function in other contexts - the town clock (noun); an early train (adverb); calculating man (-ing form of a verb, a.k.a present participle); the alleged crime (-ed form of a verb, a.k.a. past participle).

And an "adjectival phrase" may join several words to describe a single thing: that house is larger than mine; do take the chair by the table; the dress I bought yesterday.

But notice that your mistaken writing buddy is only talking about one small sector of the class of adjectives: adjectives of quality, which are the ones that answer the question What kind?square (shape), huge (size), red (colour), scruffy (condition), quick (behaviour), sad (feeling). S/he is not talking about adjectives Such as many (adj. of quantity), six (adj. of number), French (proper adj.), this (demonstrative adj.), which (interrogative adj.) or mine (possesive adj.)

CONSIDER CUTTING ADJECTIVES (of quality)

- when they're Telly (informing, summarising), when you'd be better off Showing (evoking, dramatising). "Don't just tell us that Adam is angry," says your writing buddy, "Show us his red face, clenching hands and how he whispers, 'I hate you'." And they may be right. Red and clenching are adjectives, of course, but they evoke something concrete, and the human imagination deals more easily in concrete things.
       If your game is to make the reader's mind evoke a real sense of Adam in that mood, then feeding some of those concrete things into our imagination will always make things more vivid in there. Similarly
beautiful and no doubt expensive vase  isn't going to do much to evoke a real, physical thing, and we won't feel much shock when it's hurled into the fire

- when they contribute to overwriting: Overwriting is an effect that can have many causes, but one cause is piling on the adjectives, so that no person, place or object comes un-decorated with detail, till the passage is as indigestible as an over-rich, over-long meal

- when this is not something that needs more explaining or describing. If we know the champagne is being poured, do we need telling that it's fizzy and straw-coloured? Does it matter that we're in London and the bus is big and red and smelly? They usually are.

- when the answer to Here? Now? is "Well..." Will plot, story, or the crucial kind of vividness which is about getting the reader to buy into the world of your story, suffer without it? In other words, if you're embarking on an explain-ectomy, the surplus adjectives will probably be some of the first words to go.

INTERROGATE ADJECTIVES

- should you not cut but change them? The fate of that elegant and no doubt expensive vase will be much more vivid if it was evoked as a slim, silver vase studded with pearls before you hurled it on the fire. 

- are they right for voice, point-of-view  and psychic distanceThis is what's really going on in the decision about Here? Now? Through whose eyes are you showing us this thing that might (or might not) need extra evocation? Would they think that extra stuff? At that moment? Might they not know, or not specially notice, that it's a slim silver vase studded with pearls, but certainly experience it as beautiful? Are they someone who would guess it was expensive? If so, you do perhaps want summarising sort of adjectives like those.
       Or are you sliding deliberately a little away from your down-to-earth, unworldly viewpoint character who wouldn't notice anything except that it holds flowers, and instead granting your narrator the storyteller's right to evoke the slim, sliver, pearl-studded vase, because you want the reader to experience it that way?

- are they proportionate to the person or thing's importance in the story? Subject to the voice-and-point-of-view judgement, if a narrative gives a lot of space to evoking a particular, individual example of a bus or shopkeeper or house, that's an implicit signal to the reader that it's important, and we'll try to read and remember it as such. Is it that important?

- is this the moment to take time over description? Is Anne sitting in Beth's bedroom, trying to read the photographs on the mantelpiece so as to work out if Beth's telling the truth that they have the same mother? Then quite a bit of stuff about gilded frames and crumpled corners might be just the job. But if we're in the middle of a burglary they wouldn't be. 

- are they consistent with the style and voice of the narrative? You can write as richly or as sparely as you like, you can evoke all sorts of small, passing details that add up to a wonderful tapestry of your story's world. But once your reader has settled into the style and quality of the narrative, inconsistencies where things are suddenly less, or more, densely descriptive, will jar. They may not know why, just feel feel restless and un-engaged because the means and pace for their engagement has suddenly been changed. Where you move away from that consistency, you do it deliberately, for a good reason of storytelling.

- do they make the sentence monotonous? If every noun comes with a preceding adjective, the sentence gets very ploddy: The thin woman had a narrow face with a low forehead and sandy hair. She wore a red hat, a brown scarf, and furry gloves on her thin hands. But the cure may not be to write: The woman had a face with a forehead and hair, a hat, a scarf,* and gloves on her hands.
       Instead, exploit the fact that a) English sentences can hold adjectives in many different ways: b) now's your chance to bring in a bit of character-in-action: The woman was thin, with a narrow face: her forehead was low, and her thin, fur-gloved hands poked at her sandy hair, as if she knew its colour clashed with a hat that was as red as a poppy. To practice this kind of reworking, when a sentence forms itself in your mind as you wait for a bus, see how many ways you can re-jig it, as I did with this one, and how that changes its effect.  

KEEP OR ADD ADJECTIVES

- when Showing takes too long. Sometimes, as a storyteller, you just need us to know the fact that Adam was angry last week, or the vase was elegant, so you can get to the meat of the scene.

- when Showing is merely "signalling": using gestures for emotion which have become stereotyped, rather as Victorian engravings show shock by the lady holding her hands up: wide eyes for amazement, shaking hands for fear, stomachs lurching or clenching with fear. As with any tired, second-hand idea, language or image, the reader just picks up the signal as information, and moves on without actually feeling anything. You might be better off just saying "He was amazed", and then moving on to what that amazement makes him do next. After all, in real life we think that way all the time.

- when the scene or person is bland and flat: You know it makes sense: I went into the room and found a man is not as alive as I stormed into the vast room and found a tiny man. Or, probably better still: I stormed in, and found it to be a room so vast that the tiny man in the corner was almost invisible.

- when the voice or PoV demand it. Perhaps we need to know swiftly how a character experiences something - that the man is beautiful and expensive, say - without you spending ages on particular details? The character thinks a summarising Tell about that man, so you probably don't (if we're in her PoV) want to break our sense of her personality by Showing us what she wouldn't notice: man's cheekbones, eyes and Italian silk-mohair suit.

- when they set up an effective contrast: To some extent that's what dull about the example of the thin woman further up. None of those are adjectives that we couldn't have guessed. On the other hand in loosely glued to the tarnished silver were several stained pearls there's some friction between nouns and adjectives.

ADVERBS

AN ADVERB is a word which changes or adds to the meaning of a verb: soon, fast, frankly, well, tomorrow, quite, disgustedly, anxiously, quickly, sadly. Some words which are not obviously adverbs can be put together to form an "adverbial", which is a phrase doing the job of modifying a verb: never, ever try Morris Dancing; for a week I lived upstairs; they went in a hurry (or in a car).

Notice that the adverbs they tell you to cut are always adverbs of manner, which answer the single question How?. Most end with -ly - sadly, quickly, hilariously, effervescently, fortunately - which is why some new writers who are anxious about them do a search for words ending in -ly. But there are other endings: fast, clockwise, sideways, widdershins, Soviet-style. The tutor telling you to cut all adverbs is never talking about adverbs such here (adv. of place), soon (adv. of time), extremely (adv. of degree), always (adv. of frequency).

CONSIDER CUTTING ADVERBS (of manner, chiefly)

- when they're Telly: in she ran quickly, quickness is built into the idea of run. Same with but consider thoughtfully; he crawled slowly; I cuddled lovingly

- when they contribute to overwriting: as with adjectives, any given adverb can be an excellent word in itself, but if you have too many of them too close together, it's like wearing three diamond necklaces, and then earrings so long they get tangled too... Pick the best jewel, and let it shine clear.

- when this is not something that needs more explaining or describing: The bubbles filled the glass frothily, for example, or "Will you put the dog out?" she said enquiringly: the latter would probably be better off with just asked. Or enquired, of course: often the unwanted adverb is a clue to a better verb.  (More on speech-tags here)

INTERROGATE ADVERBS

- could verb+adverb be replaced with a better verb? One that doesn't need the help of an adverb? She ran fast is rarely going to be as vivid as showing us that she racedshe scuttledshe gallopedshe pelted. As writerly yoga, next time you're waiting for a bus, think of a standard verb+adverb,  and see how many ways you say the same thing just with a well-chosen verb. For example, take he sat down. How about: He subsided... He collapsed... He perched... . (n.b. down is acting as an adverb here, but not an adverb of manner.)

- are they right for the voice, point-of-view and psychic distance? As with adjectives, absolutely any decision about which words to use needs to be subject to these three fundamental aspects of the piece, so if you haven't explored these issues, do follow the links further up.

- are they consistent with the style and voice of the narrative? As with adjectives, the richness or spareness of your narrative is part of its fundamental, individual nature and voice - so make sure it's consistent, and where you move away from that consistency, you do it for a good reason of storytelling.

- do they make the sentence monotonous? The cure for a ploddy sentence like She walked quickly down the road, breathing noisily as she trod carelessly over the crookedly-placed paving stones, may not be, She walked down the road breathing as she trod over the paving stones.
       So exploit the fact that adverbs can go in all sorts of places in a sentence, can point you towards a more effective adverbial phrase, or morph into a different part of speech. A re-jigged sentence with exactly the same words can have a much better structure and rhythm. How about, "Quickly, she set off down the road, careless about how she trod over the crooked paving stones.  

KEEP OR ADD ADVERBS

- when Showing is too fancy. For example, rather than digging out different verbs, you might choose to cover the ground in evoking a long journey with something like this: They sailed slowly, they sailed fast, they sailed carefully and fearfully, but always with hope. (with hope is an adverbial)

- to help us to "hear" how something is said. In dialogue, sometimes an adverb is a better choice than a fancy speech-tag"I know you took the money," Bella said quietly, is fine to convey the volume of the speech, if Bella whispered or murmured would be too much or the wrong effect. But do you want us to "hear" not simply volume, but how another character might experience Bella's tone? I looked at Bella. "I know you took the money," she said thoughtfully, might do that better. Gently, she said, "I know you took the money." would also be more precise, but to a different experience. For more about speech tags, follow the link further up.

- when they set up an effective contrast: He tiptoed heavily over the floor. or Cautiously, she clipped him round the ear. both exploit the surprise of the verb being modified by a surprising adjective.

- when the voice or PoV demand it: as with adjectives, a well-chosen adverb may be the most streamlined way to evoke the way a character experiences a place - and might be more true to that character's consciousness - than if you shove in a funky verb, or ladle in adjectives and descriptions which simply draw too much attention to themselves.

A last thought: as with all the tools in your writerly (note: a -ly word, but not an adverb) tool-kit, it will help enormously if you a) read voraciously, sometimes immersively by just soaking in good writing, and sometimes analytically, pausing to think about how the adverbs and adjectives are working in this particular piece - and whether they're working well or badly. b)  do writerly yoga of the sort I've suggested above, flexing and bending not just your sentence structures, but your vocabulary and all the different jobs any given word can do.

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*note the need for the Oxford comma, to make it clear she's not wearing a scarf on her hands, as well as gloves.

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