In her book Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin advises:
I recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat. (45)
Write freely in draft mode. Get the story out without fretting over how many adjectives you grabbed to describe your fifth-grade teacher or how many adverbs you tacked onto verbs used to show characters fighting for life in a dystopian city you’ve used as the setting of your next short story. Type up scenes without worrying about style or “jazziness.” Write without fear of editors or grammar nazis. Get the words down while the story pounds through your mind, before the pulsing energy subsides.
But when you’ve captured that first draft and you’re moving into revision mode, take Strunk & White’s classic advice to “omit needless words.” You don’t want to weigh down your final draft. Revise so your next iteration is lean. If you resist Hemingway-lean, at least avoid producing stories slathered with icing and covered in sprinkles.
Let nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting, instead, as writing teachers like to say. To minimize the need for clarifying adjectives, use specific nouns like Tesla instead of car, and terrier instead of dog. Turn to strong, active verbs like punch, fling, and waltz, which may not need an adverb to clarify the mood of a character or the tone of a scene.
No one is ordering us to leave out all adverbs or cut all adjectives. Only to keep a “watchful attitude” as we choose from all possible words to convey our ideas and tell our stories.
“I recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.”
–Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft (45)
Many memorable Ursula Le Guin quotes can be found in Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story).
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