Getting rid of those pesky adjectives in your writing

Ever been caught by your writing taking on a life of its own? Words not coming out the way you want, adjectives slipping in and -ly endings abounding?

Wright_Hobbiton4You’re not alone. It’s a common problem, especially near the beginning of the learning curve. And yes, writing is a learned skill like any other. It takes as much practise to get good at it as it does to become a concert pianist.

I often think one of the hallmarks is the way writers inevitably seem to drop adjectives as their experience increases. This steady de-purpling is fairly standard progression for writers as they learn, and one of the reasons why it happens is that the writer is more comfortable with the expression of the scene in their own minds. It isn’t necessary to qualify every detail with an adjective in order to feel they’ve properly conveyed it for the reader.

Sometimes, too, writing four or five words instead of an adjective can be very effective. Yes, writing needs to be efficient – there is no room for padding. But at the same time, a particular ‘style’ or ‘voice’ can be created by adding a few words.

For instance:

  1. ‘“Aha,” Roger said cunningly.’


  1. ‘“Aha.” Roger grinned at Sally with what she supposed was an attempt to convey a kind of cunning in his triumph.’

The second example is way longer but avoids an adjective with -ly ending (a classic amateur hallmark) and deepens point-of-view by nailing the perception of ‘cunning’ as a reaction by the observing character, rather than something assigned by the author.

It also still makes the reader ‘work’ for the meaning, because of the recursion – it is ‘telling’ in terms of what Sally thinks, but in reality it is ‘showing’ because of the fact that the reader has to visualise themselves in the mind of the narrator.

That combination – working for the meaning, coupled with showing and not telling – helps draw the reader in ways that adjectival writing usually doesn’t.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


8 thoughts on “Getting rid of those pesky adjectives in your writing

  1. Great writing tip. Yes, there are so many little pitfalls we need to avoid. It’s so hard to keep track of them all. I recently read a book about internal dialogue, and that really opened my eyes in how passive most people write POV internal dialogue. There again, it’s more telling then showing. Will my poor, old brain remember all of this? I hope so. 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I like the second one better. It conveys more about the character. It’s easier to picture a cunning grin as opposed to the blank “cunningly” which could be a leer, titled head, side glance, or smile. For me, the action changes how I see the character.

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