Unruly Herman


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 However, for the unpractised/unpublished writer – it is important to know the rules first…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…


About suehealy

From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022. Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer. TV Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series. Stage Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus. View all posts by suehealy

5 responses to “Unruly Herman

  • kathils

    There must be something in the air, or I’m getting a cosmic reminder, because adverbs seem to be the trending topic lately. Not that it’s a bad thing. We can always use the reminder. I’ve gotten much better at my adverb addiction recovery. Although, I tend to still stick the random one on a dialogue tag. I know, I know, forty lashes with a wet noodle. I’m trying.

  • The Writing Waters Blog

    Good advice about adjectives and adverbs. Trying to get rid of them in edits is good practice and more often than not results in better writing. Good luck with the cake.

  • knowledgeknut

    Great post! Now, where is the cake recipe?

  • "HE WHO"

    I once did an exercise in which I had to write a short story without adjectives. I was surprised at how difficult it was but was exhilarated when done. It looked and felt right, but who knew why? Thank you. Now I know why!
    I can’t wait to read more of your posts (I need a lot of help) and short stories. Congratulations on your success.
    He Who (must not be blamed) aka Woggins.

  • Will of Heart

    this is great info and input to help aspiring writer like me, thanks for sharing this Sue I learned a lot from you every time I visit here in your site… God Bless… 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: