Easy on the Adjectives and Adverbs

ketchup bottle

This writing lesson works hand in hand with the recent writing assignment idea I posted on writing description without adjectives and adverbs.


Imagine taking a friend to a fancy restaurant.  After consulting the waiter, he orders the chef’s expensive specialty dish. When the savory work of art arrives, he asks the startled waiter for a bottle of ketchup, and proceeds to drown the entire dish with half a bottle of Heinz.

“What?!” he replies to your wide-eyed stare. “I like ketchup!”

I like ketchup too. On hamburgers and french fries. In small doses.  The idea of eating a spoonful of ketchup is nauseating. Why? Because ketchup is a condiment—a food item designed to complement the flavor of other foods. Condiments are supposed to enhance the flavor of the main dish, not be the main dish.

That’s a good way to think about adjectives and adverbs. They are perfectly good words which serve a useful purpose. But they are meant to complement the words they modify, not dominate sentences. They work best in small doses.

Inexperienced writers, particularly when writing description, tend to overdose on modifiers. They feel that to really describe something, it is necessary to string together descriptive words:

The big, brown, hairy spider crawled very slowly and quietly along the thickly carpeted floor.

 This sentence certainly describes, but it is difficult and dull.  Be selective in your use of adjectives and adverbs. In fact, if you are focusing on using concrete nouns and vivid verbs, you will be able to eliminate most of the modifiers you’ve been depending on.

The tarantula crept silently across the carpet.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb to remember:

 Write with nouns and verbs.

Adjectives and adverbs are not wrong, but they are often the easy way out.  Do the hard work of finding the perfect noun or verb and you can improve the power of your language and eliminate some excess fat from your writing.  Trust your nouns and verbs. Resist the urge to color each with a modifier: “My athletic brother and his playful dog wrestled lovingly in the green grass.”

That’s a gourmet meal smothered in ketchup.


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About the Author

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

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