Word up! Rulz No.1

More by using Less: Dump your Darlings

There aren’t any rules in creative writing but…. there kind of are.

At least, if you’re a newbie, unpublished, unpractised writer, then you ought to learn the ‘unwritten’ laws of the craft. Once you are up and running, then respected and published and lauded, you can break every rule in the book (so long as you are doing so for a reason). For now, learn your craft.

Lets look first at the “rookie mistakes” – probably the most common is to cram 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. By all means, 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.


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

15 responses to “Word up! Rulz No.1

  • davidstrachan611

    Ah if only it were that simple! Don’t you think there’s good overwriting just as there’s bad underwriting? Good sound advice though.

    • suehealy

      Hi David, thanks for the comment!
      Yes, I agree, it is not that simple. And there are many very talented and accomplished writers who cram their work with adjectives and adverbs – but they are the exception that prove the rule. Moreover, they’re usually making a point (I feel) and are established and practised and accomplished enough to toy with ‘the rules’. However, for new writers who are starting out on their journey – this ‘rule’ encourages them to stand back and think about the adjectives and adverbs they’re using. It asks them to consider alternative ways to communicate a mood, to examine cliches, to take each word in hand and hold it and study it and figure what its job is in their text.

  • L.S. Engler

    Oh, adverbs. I’ve been trying to work on being conscious of how many I use, because I’ve discovered I use them quite frequently, but sometimes, you’ve just got to use one! I think I’m getting better at overusing them.

    And I could go on and on about overwriting, but that’s overwriting in a completely different way. I’ve found that, in my editing, I trim so much out. But I think it’s better to have more and be able to take it down a notch than trying to create something more out of very little there.

    • suehealy

      Hi Ellis! Thanks for the comment. I completely agree that it is better to have a splurge of words on the page to edit down, than a few words to flesh out. My first draft is usually an embarrassment of blingy adverbs/adjectives – I just let go and get the story down. Then, I come back and take out the adverbs, seeing if I can find another way to show the mood. I take about two thirds of the adjectives out too and the resultant second draft is ALWAYS much stronger than the first. And yes, I agree, sometimes (very occasionally) there is no alternative but to use an adverb… they were invented for a reason, after all. However, that use has to be justified.

  • Nicole Basaraba

    Hi Sue,

    Yep, I remember my first creative writing teacher hammering home these points loud and clear. They should be stated as Rule #2 after starting your story with backstory.

    • suehealy

      Hi Nicole, thanks for the comment! Oh yes, starting with the backstory, I’ve got to blog on that, and starting with the weather, and starting with the character waking up…. hope I don’t scare people off starting at all : )

  • NK

    So true, but so difficult. Thank you for these awesome posts.

    • suehealy

      I agree, it isn’t easy and adverbs are so useful in other forms of writing (academic, business, technical etc…) it is odd how they appear to be counter-productive in creative writing. I find, however, that taking them out strengthens my work, always. There are times when it is like teeth extraction, however, so I do sympathize.

  • NK

    May I repost this article on my blog? And if you’re cool with that, can you let me know how you’d like it cited? Thanks!

  • submeg

    Yes, I realise that I do this! Damn! Luckily, I am doing some research BEFORE putting pen to page and beginning the journey…

  • Diego Serrano


  • themodernidiot

    Great advice.
    Ps. I’ve never even heard of furze! lol

  • Michael Graeme

    Sound advice here, Sue. I’m probably guilty of all of these.

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: