On Writing #15: Adjectives, Adverbs, and The Quest for the Perfect Word

This came up today when I was on the phone with a friend — when to use adjectives and “-ly” adverbs and when not to. Since I’ve spent many years writing both fiction and technical/process/procedure documentation, I’ve run into this issue over and over.

In brief, the best solution is to cut the adjective or adverb *if you can*. If the meaning doesn’t change, the emotional content doesn’t change, then you don’t need the adjective/adverb.

Example: Pick up the silver spoon with your right hand and the plastic fork with your left.

If there is only one spoon and one fork, the adjectives mean little. If there are several forks and spoons of different types, then the information is critical. In addition, if you are writing a story that is about wealth (silver spoon) vs poverty (plastic fork), the information may also provide an emotional shading to the story that justifies keeping it.

I feel the same way about “-ly” adverbs (unusually, whitely, etc etc.) For many years I violently hated them, and I believed they were lazy and a “short cut”. As with many writers, I thought anything you were trying to say with the -ly adverb, you could say it better and more precisely by describing it.

But now age and time and KAVALIER AND KLAY have seasoned me. Sometimes — rarely — -ly adjectives are the perfect tool. When? Think in terms of rhythm, rhyme, emotional timing and pacing inside of scenes, and the risk of pulling a short story off track and focusing too much on something. In those instances, and several others, that oft-cursed, oft-derided “-ly” adverb may be your best friends.

That said, it doesn’t happen often. As I would say to a farmboy in Mos Eisly, “Best watch yourself.”

2 Replies to “On Writing #15: Adjectives, Adverbs, and The Quest for the Perfect Word”

  1. I’m not positive the place you’re getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time studying much more or working out more. Thank you for great information I used to be searching for this information for my mission.

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