Boost your writing: abandon two types of words

Here’s a tip to give your writing more impact. Every time you write, you use eight parts of speech (the building blocks of grammar). Those eight elements are the verb, the noun, the pronoun, the adjective, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection. Here’s the tip: abandon most adjectives and adverbs.

In our short attention span world, our writing needs to force its way into the reader’s attention. We need to strip every sentence down to the bones. Every word that’s not working for you is getting in the way.

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” – Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Adverbs are the words we use to modify verbs. They take up space in our sentences. But rarely are they worth the investment.

  • He smiled happily
  • The radio blared loudly
  • She clenched her teeth tightly
  • Fire destroyed the house completely
  • I was totally flabbergasted 

If we find the right verb, we don’t need to dress it up. In each of these five sentences, the verb says it all. Anything else is redundant. ‘Clenched’ tells us exactly how the teeth were held. The concept of destruction has no degree. Something either is, or is not, destroyed.

“Adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb.” – Annie Dillard

Adjectives have to go, too. They are imprecise. I could tell you ‘I’m a huge fan of music’ but it doesn’t tell you very much. 

You would know more about my enthusiasm for music if I said ‘I have 9000 songs on my iPod. The big three artists are Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen’.

Think about stories you see on television news. Just about every report of an earthquake presses into service the adjective ‘massive’. 

But we have no way of measuring massive – we just have a vague feeling it’s bigger than big but maybe not as big as enormous.

“Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.” – William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

How do we give a sense of scale if we dump the adjective? Easy – we get specific. Instead of writing ‘There was a massive earthquake’, let’s use facts:

‘The earthquake killed 5000 people.’

Adjectives and adverbs huff and puff, but they are vague and lazy. You may not be able to dump them all. But the more you can strip out – by strengthening your verbs and using specifics – the more muscular and engaging your writing will be.