Melt Copy Clinic: Why you should use adjectives sparingly
In the first of a new series of writing tips, resident word nerd Rich looks at adjectives and adverbs, with easy-to-follow advice – and a little insight behind the show-don't-tell cliché.
Few channels on our company Slack incite heated debate quite like the #dailywritingtip one that I oversee as head writer in the Melt Content editorial team. It serves as our in-house style guide – a tip a day is a bit more digestible than a 100-page bible (believe me, I could make it run further) – and it promotes some healthy discussion and Q&A on the whys and hows of all things writing. But rather than keep it all to ourselves, we decided to bring some of our top writing tips to the Knowledge Hub.
If you follow the Melt Twitter, you’ll be familiar with our #WritingTipWednesday posts. Expect more of the same from this Copy Clinic series – just with a bit more detail. I promise you’ll be likelier to find culinary metaphors than grammar jargon, and I’ll be looking at a mix of style points, grammar-made-easy and explainers on writing handbook classics.
So with that out of the way, for my first post I’m looking at a classic: you might have been told to ‘avoid adjectives’ before – here’s why there’s some truth to the adage.
The tip: Use adjectives sparingly and with extreme prejudice
Use adjectives (describing words) and adverbs (words that describe a verb or another adjective) with great caution. Be more ruthless with them than with any other kind of word. They’re the Scotch bonnets of writing – a little goes a long way and, when used in the wrong context, one can ruin the whole thing.
Rule of thumb: only use an adjective when you’re certain it’s truly applicable – not just because.
The why: Confidence trumps showing off
Inappropriate adjectives hurt your writing and make it sound less convincing. There’s a time and a place for hyperbole, but, generally, prefer understated confidence over clickbait-style bluster.
So great, brilliant, excellent, incredible, amazing, stunning, gorgeous, fabulous, magnificent, etc. should all appear rarely in your writing. Often they’re too vague to have any real impact.
Moreover, like swear words, these words have lost their impact over time through overuse, so they actually make descriptions less convincing and vivid by muddying them. Telling the reader that, say, a hotel is simply ‘great’ is not going to convince them that it’s great (and, inevitably, you’ve made me bring up one of writing’s biggest clichés – show, don’t tell. It’s an old chestnut but it often works).
The same goes for adverbs (I’ve quoted Mark Twain on the subject before); telling your reader that such-and-such is ‘incredibly powerful’ or ‘really useful’ rarely adds anything to the force of your adjective. It’s more likely to make you sound desperate.
These are just some of the worst offenders, though. The same principle applies to all adjectives with any degree of subjectivity, such as impressive, strong, fun, interesting, fascinating. Just ask yourself ‘does it sound convincing?’ If yes, then fine, leave it in. If not, figure out a more convincing way to convey your meaning using facts.
In practice: Never say never
All of this doesn’t mean you should never use adjectives or adverbs. Of course, if a view is stunning, a lake gorgeous or a cottage charming then describe away. Equally, it’s fair to describe Usain Bolt as very fast or Ed Sheeran as extremely bland and overrated successful. Just be very discerning about whether it’s going to add meaning or force to your writing.