Kill Your Adjectives: Writing Tips from Writers

We all know how to write. Or, rather, we all know the mechanical process of forming the written version of speech. We know how to pick up a pen and make the letter shapes, or sit in front of a computer and press the letter keys. We have spelling and grammar checks built in to our word processors, and editors to catch the rest of the mistakes. It is certainly important to know the basics of the process, but then what? None of this really gets to the heart of what writing is, or how to do it.
I was running into some blocks while working on my own writing, and in my search for advice, and found an article containing some of Ernest Hemingway’s tips for writing. This led me to seek out what other authors have to say on the subject, which, as it turns out, is quite a lot. I’ve assembled, in brief, what I think are some of the best writing tips I gleaned from all these sources. I don’t absolutely love the work of all the authors listed (Hemingway, particularly), but they are all dedicated, hard-working writers who have found quite a bit of success with their methods. Some of the ideas may seem obvious or trite, but I think they are worth refreshing in our minds from time to time.
“…write one true sentence.” —Ernest Hemingway
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know… If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”
“Find a Subject You Care About” —Kurt Vonnegut
“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
“When you catch an adjective, kill it.” —Mark Twain
“…don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
“You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.” —Margaret Atwood
“This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”
“Don’t describe an emotion–make it.” —Ernest Hemingway
“…I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.”
“Use the right word, not its second cousin.” —Mark Twain
“Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way.”
“Fix it.” —Neil Gaiman
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing.”
“Be Brief. It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”
—Ernest Hemingway
“Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences.” —Mark Twain
“Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.” —David Ogilvy
“Never use a long word where a short one will do.” —George Orwell
“Do Not Ramble.” —Kurt Vonnegut
Image by Julie Rybarczyk used with permission under Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic