Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of seven award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a sometime potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert.
Way back when, a favored relative we occasionally visited would say, “That’s just loverly,” when she liked something—especially when giving a compliment. She wasn’t using loverly as a stand-in for being lover-like, but as a confounding of the word lovely. At least that’s what my brain took as her meaning—that the object she was referring to was very nice. Pleasing. Her remembered words, and pictures of her in my mind’s eye are what brought me to this post, and my topic—Adjectives and adverbs in writing.[i]
Many far more successful writers than I have shared their opinions, preferences–and given advice regarding the use of adjectives and adverbs in fiction writing. And the current trend, I think, is the fewer the better. Edit them out. My (slightly contrary) thoughts here are about my personal leanings, and are inspired by what I like to read—not a rule from a writer’s perspective. And underlying my thoughts, are topics which I hopefully have mentioned before—(1) The benefits from exposure to as many ideas and information as possible (like I’ve heard here at Writers in Residence) (2) Breaking rules or current writing customs in favor of your writing instincts and “voice.”
The short, sweet, and to the point of this post is—I love adjectives and adverbs. To me, they can enhance, convey feeling, bring connotation, or even add warmth or coldness to an idea you’re trying to express. They are what brings the cadence to your “voice,” and the musicality to your writing. To me, the right adjective or adverb can help a reader sense the scene, heighten sensory perceptions already described, or even quickly picture a whole character. A few examples…
- His tone was conspiratorial, and slightly excited.
- But Meldon’s loud voice, surprisingly high and squeaky, brought him back to current day.
- With him whistling appreciatively to himself in his cruiser-cocoon, in acknowledgement of their hard work and accomplishment…
- Ben willfully continued to ignore both yesterday morning’s congratulatory thoughts about the Caltrans crew…
- Still, and quite annoyingly—even so protected from outside forces, when Ben looked down at his lap, he needed to brush away fine granules of yellowish-sand from along the crease of his meticulously pressed right pants leg
For me, Judging when an adjective or adverb will bring depth to a character, the scenery, or to just make a more musical sentence—versus self-indulgent prose-writing, is well worth thinking about. I usually make my judgment call for “keeping,” but if the word is not doing what I want, finding a better adjective/adverb. And if still not working, scratch the whole thing, and try writing a different way.
If there’s actual advice I’d like to offer—it is before cutting out all those evil-adjective and word-adding adverbs (especially the “ly” ones,) think about a couple other concepts dear to my writing heart—voice, and the musicality of your writing. Said another way—true enough, one should watch out for shooting yourself in the foot with tortured over-written prose—but at the same time making sure you are writing prose that makes your heart sing!
Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic…
Happy and loverly writing trails!
[i] Merriam Webster online: Adjective…a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages and typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else… Adverbs are words that usually modify—that is, they limit or restrict the meaning of. They may also modify adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, or even entire sentences. An adverb answers the question when?, where?, how?, how much?, how long?, or how often?