It’s time to trim the fat from your writing.
And the world of physical fitness can teach us something about this process. When you want to lose weight quickly, you cut out the obvious things from your diet: the three gallons of soda, the two dozen jelly-filled donuts with chocolate frosting, the large sugar cubes, etc.
I could have written that sentence above this way: “When you desperately want to quickly lose annoying weight, you first cut out the terribly obvious things from your daily diet: the three enormously dense gallons of delicious, sugary, fattening non-diet soda, the glorious, irresistible two dozen jelly-filled donuts with sweet, gooey chocolate frosting, and massively large sugar cubes, etc.”
The True Purposes of Adjectives
The word “adjective” has a Latin origin that means “to throw towards,” which eventually changed into the general idea of “adding.” It’s a word or phrase that adds more information to a noun: a fast cat, a tall man, a purple ball. It could be a phrase — not just one word — like: She is taller than you. The Latin root meaning “throwing towards” summarizes what we do. We throw adjectives at nouns all the time. Sometimes we throw them at the noun as if we were trying to kill it. We add so much information about the noun that it collapses under its own weight.
The True Purpose of Adverbs
An adverb is a word or phrase that gives us information about an adjective, verb, or other adverb. It’s another layer of detail. It adds more information to what has already been added.
For example, an adverb can tell you why or how someone did something. The girl walked down the street. But how did she walk? She walked cautiously down the street. The girl’s mom flew to Florida. Why? She flew to Florida to visit her brother. The phrase “to visit her brother” is the adverb.
Adverbs, like adjective, can be phrases — not just single words. Heck, if we’re being strict about this definition, we could call an entire paragraph an adverb if the sole purpose of the paragraph was to give us more information about a single verb, adjective, or adverb in a sentence that preceded it. You might think I’m crazy, but a 142-page novel can be an adverb. It’s been done — and done well.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker uses its novel-length narrative to give us more information about one verb. A man rides an escalator. That’s it. The entire novel tells us exactly what happens during those 90 seconds it takes for him to ride the escalator back to his job after his lunch break. It gives us more information — 142 pages worth — about a single verb. Great writers and critics alike have praised the book.
Revisiting these basics reminds us that adjectives and adverbs have one purpose: to give us more information. Overloading your writing with too much information or the wrong kind of information is not good.
An Experiment in Extraction
Try an experiment. Take your current writing project and remove every word in it that ends with -ly. The removal of this common kind of adverb will trim some of the fat. You will find a new swiftness in your prose. The pace will be more compelling and less cumbersome for the reader.
Of course, you will find that some sentences just suffer without that -ly adverb. Then use it. This isn’t an ironclad rule; it’s simply a place to start.
Same with adjectives. When you’re writing a sentence, try it without any adjectives. Or if you’re proofreading your work, play with a sentence by removing all the adjectives. Removing them will show you how vital those adjectives are to the sentence. Are they really adding valuable information or are they just taking up space? There are always exceptions, but any sentence with more than one adjective should be examined with suspicion.
Only Leave the Useful Information
This might be a stylistic preference, but I personally try to avoid sentences where every noun gets its own adjective: “The furry bunny ate the tasty carrot under the shady tree on a sunny day.” Do we really need all of that info? The general population’s idea of a bunny is already furry, so we don’t need that adjective. The bunny is willingly eating the carrot, so it is implied that it thinks the carrot is tasty. Don’t need that adjective. Trees naturally provide shade — for the most part — so it may not be necessary to mention that. We can keep “sunny.”
So the new sentence would read: “The bunny ate the carrot under the tree on a sunny day.” Much better.
Watch out for redundant adjectives. You don’t want to work for the Department of Redundancy Department. For example, look at this sentence: “On a summer day in the Sahara Desert, the hot sun pummeled Jake’s pasty skin, and he regretted not packing sunscreen.” Which adjective is redundant? If the purpose of an adjective is to give us more information about something, do we really need to be told that the sun — or Jake’s experience of the sun, more accurately — is “hot” when the sentence already explains that Jake is in the Sahara Desert in the summer?
We can toss out “hot” but keep “pasty” because it does give useful information. It tells us that Jake is especially vulnerable in the desert sun because of his skin type. It makes any reader who has ever had a terrible sunburn sympathize with Jake.
Clean and Clear
Keep adjectives and adverbs sparse in your writing. They can be wonderful tools for adding life to your story or changing the rhythm of your sentences, but they can also weight things down. Of course, there are exceptions for every rule: sometimes overloading a sentence with adjectives or adverbs creates a desired effect. Just use them with care.