Writing Prompt: Description Without Adjectives or Adverbs

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Paintbrush with paint

When young writers think about descriptive writing, they usually think about modifiers: adjectives and adverbs. In order to describe a house, for example, you need to heap up some adjectives: an enormous, three-story brick house. And verbs need some choice adverbs to spice things up: she sat contemplatively, the arrow flew straight, the hound dog rested languidly.

But experienced writers know that good writing, even good descriptive writing, depends more on nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs. The right noun communicates as much or more than a bunch of adjectives anyway (e.g., chateau, shack, mansion, hovel, chalet, penthouse, etc.) And vivid, active verbs usually get the point across without any help from adverbs at all (e.g., contemplate, zip, languish, etc.).

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To make this point with students, I like to assign some sort of descriptive paper with one restriction: no adjectives or adverbs allowed. The first time I gave the assignment to a small high school writing class, students were incredulous. They objected. They appealed. They nearly despaired. They couldn’t imagine how they were supposed to describe a scene without any modifiers.

I asked them to think of a busy place — a mall, a party, a sporting event — and describe it in three to five paragraphs. I wanted more than a page of double-spaced, 12-point typeface so that they couldn’t get away with a sentence or two. I allowed only one exception: they could use articles (a, an, the) and possessives (his, our, its, Bob’s). They could also use modifying phrases and clauses — as long as they didn’t contain individual adjectives and adverbs.

We composed a short paragraph together on the board first, just to show them that it really could be done. That helped the more distraught among them. They realized that action was the key. Most young writers tend to describe static things rather than dynamic scenes. They mistakenly think of description as a still-life painting instead of a live-action video. By making specific nouns move and act with strong verbs, it’s not as hard as you might think to write modifier-free descriptions.

What I remember most about that first experiment was the quality of the papers that I got back. Some of them were far better than what these students usually produced. Most of them had included adjectives and adverbs unintentionally, but I overlooked all but the most obvious. I also remember how proud they were to have accomplished a literary feat they had believed next to impossible.

After we read through several passages and talked about the challenges of the experience, I gave the papers back and asked them to revise. On the second draft I allowed them to include up to, but no more than, ten adjectives and/or adverbs.  We eventually did a 3rd and final draft to eliminate all the minor flaws. I found that many of the students added fewer modifiers than the quota and some none at all.

If you want to sharpen your descriptive writing skills, give this assignment a try. You’ll find it an enlightening and worthwhile challenge.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. DJ
    DJ08-13-2011

    Can you post a short sample paragraph of this?
    Thanks!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko08-15-2011

      Hi DJ. I looked for some examples from students, but couldn’t locate any. I’ll keep trying. If I can’t find one, I’ll come up with my own sample. How’s that?

      • alice
        alice10-17-2014

        Hi Brain,
        I just wondered if you managed to write a small sample of text without adjectives and adverbs ( as per your post suggested)?

        I would really like a sample so I get the idea and apply it to my work. I really would appreciate it if you could do this asap.

        Look forward to hearing from you
        Kind Regards

      • alice
        alice10-17-2014

        Hi Brain ,
        Hav you managed to do this yet??

        Kind Regards

  2. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen08-12-2011

    Hello Brian,
    As a writing coach and teacher, I completely agree. Vivid nouns and verbs create stronger focus with fewer words. Streamlining the words creates more interest. Nothing like a lengthy, flowery descriptive passage pulsing with adjectives and adverbs to bore the reader.
    I learn something new and valuable with each of your posts – keep them coming!
    Gratefully,
    Merri

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