I was recently given a ‘Herman the German’ chain cake recipe – a German sour dough friendship cake which has a gestation period of ten days after which you add to the mix, divide into four, bake one and give the remaining three goo mixtures away to friends, who do the same and so on and so on.
There were no measurements in the instruction list, simply ‘add egg, add flour’ etc… This is my kind of recipe. I don’t like being dictated to. I like to experiment and break rules when I come across them, to see what happens. I think this is a healthy trait in a writer. However, for the unpractised/unpublished writer – it is important to know the rules first…
Currently (and yes it is subject to fashion and trend) the big ‘no no’ is cramming sentences with adjectives and adverbs. A new writer will often fall in love with words and phrases and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing deadens the impact of the sentence – which defeats its purpose. So, the rule is, use adjectives but go easy and be clear.
An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:
‘A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’
There is too much going on in this sentence. Each individual image is in competition for the readers’ attention. The result is a boring blur. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly, so do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume.
I would pare the sentence to the following: ‘A cloud slugged over the hills.’
I hope you can see how ‘less is more’ here. The image is much stronger without shoehorning in all those adjectives/adverbs.
A note on adverbs:
Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”). Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. So, don’t use them.
Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.
Now, I’d best go check on my Herman cake…