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Ok, I'm starting to get a feel for this, but I'm hoping someone can explain it more clearly for me.

I learned in all my English classes that sensory imagery is important, which naturally involves a lot of adjectives and adverbs. I also learned that the writer should "paint a picture" for the reader, which to me means describing the setting.

So my question is why do so many people (Mark Twain and Stephen King, for instance) express such loathing of adverbs and adjectives? Can you provide some good examples of when adjectives and adverbs are overused?

Here is what I've come up with for so far, but I'd like to get some input from more experienced writers:

  1. No amount of great adjectives or adverbs can fix bad writing or a dull story.
  2. Not everything needs to be described in detail. Doing so:
    • can bog down the text and burden the reader.
    • obfuscates what is actually important.
    • unnecessarily restrains the readers own imagination and prevents them from making the scene personal.
  3. Adjective-noun or adverb-verb can often be replaced by one better word that encapsulates it (e.g., "ran quickly" becomes "dashed").
  4. Show, don't tell: the story is more engaging if you describe something indirectly by illustrating the effect it has, particularly on a character. For example: "He entered the hot room" becomes "He entered the room and was struck by a wall of hot air".
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Of course in your last example, you only moved the adjective "hot" from the room to the air. Anyway, "hatred" against certain things often doesn't mean that you should never use it, but just that it is easily overused. In most cases, I definitely would prefer "there was a red apple on the table" to "on the table there was an apple whose colour was not too far from the colour of a strawberry" or "on the table there was an apple which reflected a light spectrum that was dominated by wavelengths between 630 and 790 nanometers" –  celtschk Jun 7 '13 at 14:42
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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Abuse of adjectives and adverbs is the hallmark sign of pulp writing, showing the author has a poor grasp of the language.

You usually use adjectives and adverbs when you try to make given noun or verb, respectively, more precise, more descriptive. This is fine when there is no better way to achieve this goal, but in a lot of cases there is a better way.

First off, think if your noun-adjective or verb-adverb pair can be replaced with a different noun or verb that achieves the same goal alone. Instead of finding precisely, pinpoint. Instead of moving quickly, dash. Instead of deep red, use crimson. Instead of hunting dog, pick hound.

Next, think if the adjective or adverb adds anything, or if it's just redundant. Visit a wise sage to beg humbly for a helpful advice in quest of search for an ancient artifact to prevent catastrophic genocide? No,just no.

And then think if your adverb is any good. Don't make them up. Don't replace whole clauses and sentences with them. They are cheap. Using them copiously makes your prose cheap.

When to use them? When your alternative would be pretentious. There are strong nouns and verbs, that pinpoint given meaning, and there are pretentious ones, that replace common expressions adding very little to the meaning but sounding smart. Really, "She's incredibly beautiful" is better than "She's pulchritudinous".

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So my question is why do so many people (Mark Twain and Stephen King, for instance) express such loathing of adverbs and adjectives? Can you provide some good examples of when adjectives and adverbs are overused?

Count me in the loathing camp. @SF. and @jschabs have already given great answers, though I'll add one additional point: an excess of adjectives and adverbs sends a message to the reader that you don't trust their own imagination. You, the writer, leave nothing to chance, crafting each image and feeling down to the last detail. I think that's rather presumptuous. I'd rather give readers some credit by giving them a general sense of what's going on, a light touch, a nod in the right direction, and let them use their own imaginations for the rest.

Try this analogy on for size: I like to think of verbs as the engine of sentences and nouns as the fuel. The adjectives and adverbs are the paint and chrome of the sentence-as-vehicle, but too much of either just add dead weight. You can write an interesting and meaningful sentence without adjectives or adverbs, but try doing that without nouns or verbs!

For some comparison examples, I'll start with this classic one from Robert Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon. It's not even a complete sentence, it's just a clause: "the door dilated". That's a classic example because it shows how one noun and one verb can speak volumes about where, or rather, when we are. He could have written, "the overlapping panels of the circular door opened radially," but what useful information do all those extra words add? None.

Here's another example, with a full break-down. Compare this sentence:

Adam slogged slowly through the frigid, gelid, and blindingly white drifts of snow, piling quickly up to his beleaguered hips.

with

Adam slogged through snowdrifts as high as his hips.

The verb slogged conveys effort, and thus, a slow speed. The reader isn't going to be imagining Adam sprinting around an Olympic track. There's no need to beat him over the head with the adverb slowly. Similarly, the reader already knows snowdrifts only exist in cold places, so frigid and the redundant gelid don't add anything either. If snow isn't white, there had better be a good reason why (as in, relevant to the plot), so that can be omitted. Arguably "blindingly" adds something useful about the visual conditions, but on the other hand, "blindingly" modifies "white", so what about white is so blinding? Wouldn't it be clearer to say, in the next sentence, that the sun, reflecting off the snow, blinded him? Arguably "piling up quickly" gives some sense of the speed with which conditions are worsening, but hang on, now we have a problem. If the "white" of the snow is blinding him, how can the snowdrifts be getting bigger? That suggests conditions where there's no sun visible. That's another problem with too many adjectives and adverbs, you can easily paint yourself into a logical corner trying to juggle so many details.

If you'd like to read more examples of why adjectives and adverbs are loathsome, try any Bulwer-Lytton contest winner, like this one:

The shallow cave behind the mighty river’s thundering waterfall seemed more like a damp, cold, misty, poorly lit hallway leading from the shower room in some cheap-dive gym under the Elevated train where mugs who couldn’t crack the glass jaw of some washed-up palooka on their best sober day still deluded themselves that they could be somebody; and yet, Bill thought, “at least it’s got runnin’ water.” — Warren Blair, Ashburn, VA

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Writing is tricky. As someone telling a story, you have to find the balance between describing something and moving the plot forward. If your description (be it an adjective, adverb, or even a couple of sentences of prose) adds to the information the reader needs to know, is a relevant detail, or gives a better image of what's going on, keep it in. If it detracts from the momentum of the story and delays the actually important parts, it shouldn't be in there.

The phrase you used "show, don't tell" is a good example of that need for balance. As the narrator, you're going to be writing two things: prose and speech. When you have a character talking, you're not generally going to have them come out and directly say something like "We lost the championships. I'm sad," said Henry. You'll more likely write "We lost the championships," said Henry sadly. Here, you'd rather show than tell. On the other hand, you don't need to show all the events that occurred in the team losing the championships. It might be enough to tell the reader that it happened. If it doesn't move along the plot, you'd rather tell than show.

If you don't put in enough description, you run the risk of having your reader not connect with the world or the characters. If you put in too much, you bog down the plot. When in doubt, you can always put in the description as you're writing and take it out later. It's harder though to leave it out in the beginning and realize you need it later.

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Reducing "the momentum of the story" might be a good thing in some cases; e.g., it might help communicate the boredom or distraction of a person waiting. In a mystery greater detail than typical might be used to misdirect the reader or to express the observant nature of the detective. "'We lost the championships,' sighed Henry as he dropped his gear on the floor." (vs. "'We won the championships!' exclaimed Henry tossing his gear aside."--lethargy vs. energy) might be better--but that removes the example of using an adverb! (Sorry.) –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 7 '13 at 19:45
    
That's very true and you make a good point. Showing the boredom of the person waiting doesn't necessarily detract from the momentum. It still contributes to the plot by giving relevant details. I like your detective example, too. –  jschabs Jun 7 '13 at 19:59
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