Extreme Makeover, Manuscript Edition

Have you ever seen a girl who has just discovered makeup? She imagines that since a little makes her look good, a lot will make her gorgeous. In the end, it's just comical.

That's how it is when writers begin to toss in adjectives and adverbs. After all, we've read books where they're used, and it sounded lovely. So a couple of adjectives and adverbs are added. And then some more. Soon, all the beautiful, stark prose is clogged by a forest of fancy words.

And the voice is lost somewhere deep inside.

Pick up a bestselling book today, and read the first page. You can even make a photocopy of it, and highlight the adjectives and adverbs. These days, you'll find only a few. Compelling writing is far more spare than it used to be, and writers today must learn to strip themselves of unnecessary words.

I remember attending a workshop given by fantasy writer Donita K. Paul. She showed a paragraph on the screen. Paul talked about how adjectives and adverbs can be distracting. After a moment, large circles slid onto the screen, each one covering an adjective or adverb. Before long, the entire screen looked like it had the measles.

As readers, we somehow believe that the more flowery the writing, the better it is. Not so. Here are some articles to help you get rid of what is often called "purple prose".

Writer's Digest tells writers: Don't Use Adverbs and Adjectives to Prettify Your Prose

Need to see an example of purple prose? Check out this one on Mary DeMuth's site. For more of her examples, click the "free critique per week" label.

Jane Friedman explains The Much-Maligned Adverb.

And author Maree Giles warns: Dead Boring--Don't Let Pesky Adverbs, Dull Adjectives, and Passive Voice Drain Your Writing!

So just remember: for adjectives and adverbs, just like makeup, a little goes a long way.


  1. Great advice, I love the comparison to the new girl wearing makeup. So fun!

  2. I have to admit, that is something I struggle with. I spend a lot of time paring down. I am a wordy person...even when I talk. Great info as always Debbie.

  3. Thank you Rose, and CJ! Now to get a few posts pre-written. I'm going camping for a few days! Hopefully I'll get some writing done while I'm gone.



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