THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART III by Miko Johnston

PART III:  Forego adjectives and adverbs

We’ve already looked at “show, don’t tell” and “use action verbs” in contemporary writing. The use of adjectives and adverbs is another example of the influence of minimalism in prose. Granted, it’s a symptom of weak writing when overdone or poorly done, but like all rules, when broken properly it works.

Adjectives often don’t serve their purpose, which is to clarify or describe the noun. They can be redundant: big giant, serious crisis, clear blue sky. Or they can be vague: pretty flower, musical song. Familiar pairings of adjective and noun can come off as cliché as well. The same holds true for adverbs and verbs: he ran quickly; she considered thoughtfully.

In my short story, “By Anonymous”, my protagonist describes another character’s home. He could have called it ‘a McMansion’, but that would have been cliché. He could have described it as a huge house with ostentatious architecture, rolling green lawns and lush gardens, all of which are out of place in its arid surroundings. Instead he calls it “…an overpriced abscess….” With that economic description we get the idea without having each detail drawn for us, for ultimately it doesn’t matter if the house size is 4,300 or 5,800 square feet, whether it’s a Tudor or a Mediterranean style. However, it illustrates the protagonist’s opinion about the house, which is more important that its description. Since the pairing of words is unusual, the phrase stands out.

Whenever I edit my writing I always do one pass-through looking for excess adjectives and adverbs. Sometimes I perform a word search to see if I’ve overused a word (‘just’ is my bane), or word pairing. Then I decide whether to cut, change or leave the word or words in the manuscript. If the moment is critical to the story, or if I want to slow the pace, I’ll change the wording to something unique to pull the reader in. If I want the reader to fly through the passage in question, I’ll either cut the word or let it stand. Readers don’t savor familiar phrases or clichés like McMansion, but they might pause to consider an overpriced abscess.

And speaking of clichés, we’ll examine how they might be used effectively in our final installment.

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