Adjectives, Adverbs & Clichés
Let’s start with some definitions.
An adjective is a word that describes, modifies, or clarifies a noun by giving some descriptive information about it.
An adverb is a word that modifies or provides greater description to a verb, another adverb, an adjective, a phrase, a clause, or an entire sentence.
A cliché is a trite, overused, or stereotyped phrase or expression.
A problem that new writers often have is the overuse of adjectives, adverbs, and clichés. And the reason is because it’s easier to throw one of them into a sentence than to construct a powerful, effective sentence that skillfully links events, actions, and objects in a purposeful and persuasive manner.
Adjectives and Adverbs
There is no shortage of famous quotes on the use of adjectives and adverbs in writing.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs. —Stephen King
Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. —Anton Chekhov
Adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. —Annie Dillard
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. —Strunk and White
The inclination to use adjectives and adverbs seems to come naturally for most of us as an element of description and a way to spice up sentences. But using bland nouns and verbs modified by adjectives and adverbs is usually second best to finding stronger nouns and verbs that don’t need adjective and adverbs to intensify them. For example, instead of being “really mad,” you should be “furious.” Instead of a “difficult problem,” try using “dilemma.” The following examples show the advantage of omitting the adverb or adjective and replacing a weak verb or noun with a stronger one—using fewer words overall.
Weak: She walked softly toward the door.
Better: She tiptoed toward the door.
Weak: He will be very glad to see you.
Better: He will be delighted to see you.
Weak: A huge rock came very fast down the mountainside.
Better: A boulder tumbled down the mountainside.
Weak: He walked angrily toward the front door.
Better: He stormed through the front door.
Sometimes using more words to replace an adjective better conveys the message. Consider these sentences.
Bland: She gave him a flirtatious look.
Better: She batted her lashes and smiled with her eyes.
Bland: The baby was adorable.
Better: The baby’s wide innocent eyes and toothless grin made everyone in the room smile.
In both of the previous examples, the better version contains more words but makes the point by bringing it to life for the reader.
Many adverbs end in ly. During the self-editing process, search your manuscript for these words. In almost every case, you will be able to replace them with better descriptors.
Before: She walked slowly toward the window.
After: She took her time walking to the window.
Before: He was excessively afraid of the big dog.
After: He was terrified of the dog poking his head over the four-foot fence.
Listed below are some of the more commonly overused adverbs that can be replaced with better descriptors or omitted altogether.
The celebration was actually for her.
The celebration was for her.
Hopefully, he would come for a visit.
She longed for him to visit.
He was perfectly sure.
He was sure.
She really liked him.
She adored him.
The dog suddenly lunged at her face.
The dog lunged at her face.
The two of them were totally in sync.
The two of them were in sync.
She was a very interesting person.
She was a fascinating person.
With respect to adjectives, use them only when the noun by itself isn’t enough, as in these examples.
The scariest villain of all time is Darth Vader.
Please pull out the three red roses and put them in another vase.
I’m looking for a young, good-tempered dog for a pet.
Avoid redundancy. If the adjective doesn’t add value to the sentence, it will clutter up the writing and cause readers to skip over it. And if readers find themselves skipping over too much text, they may put the book away unfinished.
Free gift—If it’s a gift, it’s free.
Serious danger—All danger is serious.
Cold snow—There is no such thing as warm snow.
The bull bellowed loudly—How else would a bull bellow?
There are times to use and times to avoid adjectives and adverbs. The point is to not overuse them. Include them only if you can’t convey the same meaning without them. Adjectives and adverbs are fine in moderation, but strong nouns and verbs will make your writing more engaging.
As much as I am aware of the need to avoid clichés in my writing at all costs, my editor will still red flag one here and there that I’ve inadvertently managed to include. They come so naturally, and that’s the problem.
Clichés degrade your writing, take away from your creativity, and therefore can weaken the dramatic effect of the story.
Here are just a few clichés you need to avoid (like the plague):
· better safe than sorry
· bring to the table
· but at the end of the day
· dead as a doornail
· every dog has its day
· giving 110 percent
· if only walls could talk
· ignorance is bliss
· it’s an uphill battle
· like a kid in a candy store
· low-hanging fruit
· out of left field
· play your cards right
· plenty of fish in the sea
· raining cats and dogs
· read between the lines
· take the tiger by the tail
· the grass is always greener on the other side
· the pot calling the kettle black
· thick as thieves
· think outside the box
· you can’t judge a book by its cover
Here are examples of alternative ways to get the same point across for a few of the overused clichés.
Giving 110 percent
Putting forth the maximum possible amount of effort
Out of left field
Unexpected, surprising, erratic, peculiar
Think outside the box
Expand your thinking, examine from a different perspective
Easy, simple, cinch, uncomplicated
There are tens of hundreds of clichés to avoid, too many to list here. Check the Internet for more comprehensive lists.