Do adjectives and adverbs have a place in non-fiction writing?

Do adjectives and adverbs have a place in non-fiction writing? Maybe.

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Used properly, adjectives and their annoying relations, adverbs, render the mundane into something extraordinary – specifically because, if controlled, they evoke emotions in readers. Control is essential: use the wrong adjectives and you reduce the work to ‘telling’, whereas what you’re trying to do is ‘show’.

That lesson is true of both fiction and non-fiction, actually.

This is why writers need to not just be able to write: they have to be able to absolutely dominate their use of language. It only comes with practise – about a million words worth, ultimately. (Don’t get daunted – get started!).

That’s actually true of fiction too, but it has a use in non-fiction particularly when you’re writing about real people and their activities. The essence, as always, is control – knowing what you’re doing as a writer and being able to control words to provoke an emotional effect in the reader.

Take the way adjectives are used in celebrity gossip magazines. Here, certain nouns or verbs – usually relating to behaviour or actions – are qualified with an adjective, usually one that’s designed to invoke a specific response in the reader. You know: Celebrity X doesn’t just eat a meal, they eat a ‘nourishing’ meal. Celebrity Y doesn’t have a car crash, they have a ‘horror’ car crash, and so on. Why? Because celebrity life has to be hyper-real, and these kinds of adjectives provoke that sense in the reader. The style’s not difficult to emulate – in fact, these magazines hire staff writers and editors in part for their ability to do just that.

The use of adjectives in ‘literary’ non-fiction (and yes, there is such a thing) is a bit different; they telegraph the ‘feels’ – again for the purpose of evoking a response from the reader, but this time the response is designed to engage with the reader in more complex ways, including validating the reasons why literary works are written and read. (OK, to me the whole genre usually comes across as pretentious).

For general non-fiction, the sort written to draw the largest general audience, a slightly different approach is needed. I’ve found less is more – too many adjectives in this style tends to leave the piece somewhat over-written, or vulnerable to nit-pickers.

Ultimately the bottom line is control. Master the control of words and you can write in any style, to any purpose. It’s a reality of writing that gives the lie to the oft-held notion that an author known for some style of writing is somehow incapable of anything else. For some writers, yes, that’s true.

But for those who’ve put in the hard yards and mastered the language, any style’s possible – along with controlling adjectives.

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Not to mention getting a gig writing for those gossip magazines, naturally under a pseudonym. (And no, I’m not – dammit… they pay VERY well…)

If you want to learn more about writing techniques in general – and fast, check out my book Get Writing… Fast, available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

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