Stripping Down My Prose: Risking the Removal of Adjectives

Happy to welcome Margaret McNellis to the blog today. She’s tried an interesting experiment with her writing to create stronger, tighter prose, so please read on!

When I was a Masters of Arts student studying English and Creative Writing, one of the biggest issues I had with my writing is that my peers told me that while I chose beautiful words, there were simply too many of them. Not knowing which words to cut, I simply chalked it up to that they must have been unaccustomed to reading historical fiction. I needed those words to world-build.

Fast-forward two years to my first MFA residency week. I was exciting about the piece I’d submitted—a short story that fits into the historical mystery subgenre. My descriptions were nothing short of poetic. At the time, I thought that’s what literary fiction was. I thought if my descriptions jumped off the page like a poem, then I’d hit the mark. The main problem with this approach was that I was wrong.

(For the record, literary fiction is fiction that’s driven by character development; while plot is important, it’s not the propelling force of the work.)

Understanding where my definition of literary fiction was lacking helped me get closer to fixing my painfully poetic prose. Yes, literary fiction can often move at a slower pace. One way to slow the pace of a story is to describe more, to expand the exposition…but I was losing readers’ interest in the process, and therefore failing as a storyteller.

It wasn’t until I received my first feedback letter from my mentor that my solution began to gel in my mind. She’d addressed the first paragraph of my thesis, which began with this sentence:

“I slid numb-legged from the saddle, sinking knee-deep into snow, and settled one gloved hand against my horse’s neck; his withers jumped and trembled, though my hand was too cold to feel the bunching muscle.”

Write tighter: trim back those adjectives and adverbs for tighter prose. Editing tips for writers.

Re-reading this sentence now makes me gag because it’s littered with adjectives and adverbs that make me stumble toward the period, which acts like a piece of cheese for a mouse in a maze. That’s how I feel at the end of this sentence, grateful that I survived it and famished for the effort it took.

I was trying to show the reader that my protagonist was cold, that it was winter, and that this horse is nervous but possesses vitality. All my mentor did was suggest that there were too many adjectives and adverbs in my first paragraph—and throughout the first chapter—and that I should work on cutting back.

I couldn’t decide which adjectives and adverbs to cut, so I decided to take a risk, and I cut all of them.

Using the sentence above, my next draft read like this:

“I slid from the saddle, sinking into the snow. His withers jumped and his muscles bunched under my hand.”

This revision is much more compact. The world is cold—cold enough for deep snow. The horse still reacts to my protagonist’s dismount, and I’ve conveyed the animal’s strength. I also ended up splitting the sentence in two because I thought about the way people tend to breathe in the cold. They don’t take deep breaths, because the air is cold. By shortening my sentences, I evoked that feeling without having to say it.

I expected that removing all the adjectives and adverbs from my text would tighten my writing, but I didn’t think about how it would make it more active and exciting. By removing these modifiers, I had to think more about what my protagonist was doing, what his horse was doing, and how my protagonist felt.

By allowing myself to focus on those considerations, throughout the story I found better opportunities to develop Barnaby the horse as a character, instead of just an object to show off my protagonist’s connection to horses and the inauspicious start to his present mission.

Does this mean we should cut all modifiers? No. Using adjectives that provide a strong impact is fine. In my case, I found that in order to determine which ones were important, and fit my style as a writer, I had to dump them all first. I admit I felt a bit ashamed for letting my writing get so bogged down—especially with adverbs. I knew better!

But the lesson remains the same. Sometimes you have to take the risk and strip your writing to its bones, like taking a house down to studs, before you can build it back up again.

Do you use too many modifiers? What technique have you used to pare back? Let us know in the comments!

Margaret McNellis is an MFA student, teaching assistant, author, and freelance writer/editor.

She blogs and podcasts about writing and teaching at http://mmcnellis.com. Connect with her on Twitter @mcnelliswrites or on Facebook.

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Editing Tips, Grammar, Guest Post, Revision and Editing. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Stripping Down My Prose: Risking the Removal of Adjectives

  1. Nina says:

    I used to do the same thing. And after reading your article it made me realize that its best to use a few adjectives. I am a novice and write as a hobby. You tips are very much appreciated. Thanks for sharing this post!

    • Margaret says:

      Hi Nina!

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my post. I’m so glad it was helpful! Clearing the deck of clutter allowed me to make room for the adjectives that mattered; I’m so glad you’re allowing yourself to use some adjectives.

      Happy writing!
      Margaret

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  3. Gargi Mehra says:

    Great example! The “after” version reads clearly but is good prose too.

    • Margaret says:

      Thank you! I was pleased to find the same, and after having conducted this experiment, I find I’m writing with far fewer superfluous modifiers than before, which makes editing easier on the far end.

      Happy writing!
      Margaret

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  5. Joy Pixley says:

    Wonderful advice — thank you for sharing your experience. And what a wonderful technique, to cut all of the modifiers, and then see which (if any) need to be put back in. I will definitely have to try that.

    One strategy I’ve been using to rein in my florid prose is participating in weekly flash fiction challenges to post on my blog. When you only have 200 or even 100 words to tell a whole story, hoo boy, you need to choose each word wisely! It’s been great training, forcing me to find a more descriptive verb or noun rather than relying on adverbs or adjectives.

    • Margaret says:

      Hi Joy,

      Thank you for reading, and for your comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. Flash fiction is so much fun, and a great exercise!

      Happy writing!
      Margaret

  6. Good discussion, Margaret! When I wrote my first manuscript, I had no idea what I was doing. I just wrote my story. It wasn’t until after my story was complete that I heard the no-adverbs rule. So I tried to cut them out, but I remember thinking, “But ‘my’ adverbs are good.” 🙂 Over the course of several edits, I learned what Angela said: use strong specific language.

    • Margaret says:

      Hi Karen,

      Thank you! I appreciate your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. It can be so easy to want to keep something in a story because we love it, but at the end of the day what matters is what the story needs. Good for you that you’ve come to that realization!

      Cheers,
      Margaret

  7. Eileen Neal Gordon says:

    Thank you so much for that golden advice! I’m sending my manuscript next week to two agents and I’m editing at warp speed. Diving back in now with an eagle eye to hunt those adjectives down and do some massive rewriting.

  8. Nancy West says:

    Thank you! Good advice, and much appreciated!

  9. Erika Hayes says:

    I never am disappointed when I read this blog! I love everything I read here! Thank you for this post it is fantastic! (That’s three intentional exclamation marks 🙂 I am a sparing when I use this punctuation so using it three times is actually saying more than the words I wrote)

  10. I tend to write very sparse, but I don’t mind because it forces me to use strong specific language. This is one area where I think our creative mind can war with our analytical one. Our creative side just wants to let the words flow, but we know it often leads to an abuse of modifiers or non-specific verbs and descriptions. The good news is the more we edit, the more our creative side is infused with craft, and those stronger word choices become more nature even when drafting. 🙂

    • Margaret says:

      Hi Angela,

      Thank you so much for both helping to share this post and for your comment. I agree with you completely, and love how you said “our creative side is infused with craft.” Well put!

      Cheers,
      Margaret

  11. Diana Rubino says:

    That was exactly my greatest flaw when I started writing–many readers told me I had too many adjectives, and my journalism prof wrote on one of my essays “You overwrite like a rotten peach.” Another colleague told me “You tell them you’re gonna tell them, you tell them, then you tell them you told them.”
    I got to be very good at chopping those modifiers AND adverbs!

    I advise every writer to use strong verbs instead of adverbs, and SHOWING us how your characters FEEL will cut those modifiers.

    • Margaret says:

      Hi Diana,

      Thank you for reading! I’m sorry you struggled with this in the past but am glad to hear you’re feeling better about your economy of words. You are 100% right!

      Happy writing!
      Margaret

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