His words were like daggers to the affectionate, sensitive child. Had he stabbed her to the heart, he could not have hurt her more.
“Oh, papa!” she murmured in heartbroken accents…
Silently and mechanically Elsie obeyed him, and hastening to her own room again, threw herself into her nurse’s arms, weeping as though she would weep her very life away.
(Elsie’s Holidays at Roselands by Martha Finley)
For a variety of reasons, this passage is simply too much. While the flow of the prose is evident, five pages of material like this can sometimes feel like enough for a lifetime. The writing style is so indulgent it’s distasteful.
Why? I know the Elsie Dinsmore series too well for my liking, having received the books as presents for a number of consecutive birthdays when I was a child. I remember finding them hard to read then. There are a number of reasons why prose like this simply isn’t popular these days and wouldn’t comply with modern publishing standards. Besides the obvious melodrama, surely one of those reasons would be the overuse of descriptive language, including adjectives and adverbs: the “cold, stern tone”, the “heartbroken accents”, and Elsie’s departure “silently and mechanically”.
Overusing adjectives and adverbs is a common issue among aspiring authors. This is an excerpt from the fourth draft of my now published book, Rafen.
Talmon had never heard his master beg before. This black-cloaked, hooded assassin - this terrible ancient form, visibly decayed in the parts of his hands that were visible beneath his drooping black sleeves - the Stranger, the grey-tunnelled-eyed Stranger. The spirit, incarnate.
He who threatened every world, every sun, every moon, every star, the entire vast universe in its royal array - afraid.
Too much. Way too much. An excerpt of the rewritten scene from the published book:
In his youth, Talmon had thirsted for his Master’s power and fawned over the Lashki, drinking in his rotting presence. Then the days had come when it frightened him. The rapier-length rod called and called, and his Master gave the voices whatever they wanted.
Now he didn’t dare look up. The sight of his Master repulsed him. Besides, he already knew what expression the Lashki now wore: a lofty, transcendent one, intended for his next victim. Excitement would be gleaming in his Master’s black eyes because he, the Lashki Mirah, was as invincible as his victim was powerless.
I still look at this and think of ways it could be improved. “Lofty” could be chopped, for instance. But this definitely flows much better than the above work. It has direction and a good pace.
How do you know when you’re using too many adjectives or adverbs? Here are some tips to help you figure it out.
- Read your work out loud. Do you feel the syllables stacking up? Does it feel like it’s taking a long time to reach the important part of the sentence? Would your audience’s eyes begin to glaze over at any point?
- Have a “special word” rule. I normally prefer no more than two special words before a noun. Sometimes two is even too much. These days, I look for one powerful word to convey my meaning. Notice how I speak of the Lashki’s “rotting presence” in the better version of this scene. In the one above, I described him as a “terrible ancient form, visibly decayed in the parts of his hands that were visible beneath his drooping black sleeves - the Stranger, the grey-tunnelled-eyed Stranger.” That’s hideous. No more than two special words. But remember, one is typically more powerful.
- Find out what your readers remember. Chat to your beta readers. Can they remember powerful sections of your prose? Or are they lost by the end of your sentence? I know I’ve produced something eye-catching when my brother (one of my ultimate beta readers) quotes back to me something like “a blue flower”, referencing a kesmalic bruise in book two of my series. I didn’t have to describe the injury using a collection of incredible words. That short phrase has created a picture that stays with him. What do your readers remember?
Editing Tip for Fluency No #3: stop abusing adjectives and adverbs.
Act like you’re going to run out. Make your work memorable (and bearable).