Poor adjectives and adverbs! To be so constantly slandered. It’s not their fault. So I’m standing up for them before they decide they’ve had enough and abandon us altogether.
The Rule of not using adjectives and adverbs is so popular, you see it everywhere. And because you see it everywhere, it must be true, right?
Without descriptive words, writing would be dull indeed!
Personally, I find writing with almost no descriptive words dry, unimaginative and non-evocative. I usually don’t enjoy it, and therefore I often don’t read authors who write that way. They may tell a story, but it’s not a story that engages me. But then I like color, and light, and textures, and scents, and am greatly struck by ambient visuals. As are many people, which is why we flock to the computer, the television and to movie theaters – we like to see where we are in a story, and who we’re with. Books require less because our imagination fills in so much for us, but the author still needs to direct the imagination with description. Generally a noir detective novel is going to want less description than a high-fantasy novel, and that’s more about how the writing compliments the world and the tone than about the good and badness of descriptive words.
What’s valuable about the idea of monitoring your use of adjectives and adverbs?
Randomly assigning qualities to things for the sole purpose of creating description will muddle rather than enhance the reading experience. Descriptive words are best when they join other elements in writing to build a picture, not when they are relied on solely to do the job. And as in life, we focus on some things and skim over the rest – constant description can then come to feel false and be distracting, unless it’s intentionally used in a scene where the senses are highly engaged in a moment-by-moment basis.
Description in general gets a lot of the same prejudice as adjectives and adverbs, so I want to offer a counterpoint to the maligning there as well.
Description does not equate with purple prose, and even purple prose isn’t a dirty word – despite the way it’s used these days.
The more something is already familiar to the reader, the less description is needed. We all know what a rose looks like, so you only need to describe what’s contradictory to expectations, if anything, or just a little detail to quickly evoke the rose to mind. On the other hand, there can be a great satisfaction in reading someone else’s description of something well known, because we have the satisfying experience of feeling like we’re connected to and understood by others. And the more you want a story to transport your reader away from their couch, bathroom or seat on the bus, the more you want to make sure their mind is engaged with your world, and description is that lovely reminder that hey, we’re somewhere else entirely.
So there’s no real right and wrong here, it’s more about knowing when and how to use your tools.