Use adjectives sparingly (and adverbs even more so)

“If something is amusing or sensational,” wrote the late newspaper titan Harold Evans, “there is no need to tell the readers. The facts that amused or shocked should be described and they can apply their own adjectives.”

That sentiment was also shared by the influential 20th century writer C.S. Lewis, who advised that “instead of telling us the thing is ‘terrible’, describe it so that we’ll be terrified”.

What both men were referring to were adjectives, a class of words that are often used to excess by writers who either have no idea they’re using them or because they’re of the opinion that it’s perfectly reasonable to refer to, for example, a garden as “cute” or a farm as “fabulous”.

And what both men were advising was for writers to tone it down, to go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. Because when you do, your copy will be sharper, more concise and engaging – to the delight of your audience.

Here’s what you need to know to make that happen.

What’s an adjective?

Adjectives are describing words that modify nouns. When used well, they provide useful detail. For example:

  • The charming cottage is available for hire …
  • You’ll be served with a chilled complimentary drink at check-in …
  • Your knowledgeable tour guide …

What’s an adverb?

Adverbs are also describing words. They modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. As with adjectives, they are used to provide more information, such as the where, the when and the how. For example:

  • If you head westwards on the trail …
  • The museum will close early today
  • She intentionally hid the note

What’s the problem?

Adjectives and adverbs are so overused they either deliver no value whatsoever to a piece of content or they do more harm than good. Think of them as the scotch bonnets of writing – add a little to the mix and they’ll go a long way. Chuck them all in and, well, you “better buckle your seatbelt Dorothy because Kansas is going bye-bye”.

Think of words like great, brilliant, excellent, incredible, amazing, stunning, gorgeous, fabulous and magnificent. Words like these, for the most part, need to be cut because they have lost their sparkle – and including them isn’t going to make a positive difference to your content.

In fact, they’re more likely to have a negative impact on your writing by ramping up your word count, muddying your meaning and making your content feel overwritten and less authoritative.

How to fix it it

The good news is that there’s an easy fix to the superfluity of useless adjectives: be ruthless. Either prevent them from ever landing on your page in the first instance, kick them to the curb when it comes to editing and proofing your content, or use them, as per the headline, cautiously and sparingly.

And that means only including them after careful consideration. Every time you come across an adjective or adverb in your copy, ask yourself the following: would the inclusion of this word genuinely help make the copy more engaging or helpful or is it just decorative padding that doesn’t contribute anything of worth?

Another technique is to rely on that old chestnut, show, don’t tell. In this instance, ask yourself if the adjectives and adverbs that you’ve used are perhaps a little too subjective.

After all, a marvellous view to one person, like yourself for example, might be true, but to someone else looking at the same thing, they’d argue that the view in question is just alright – and nothing to wax lyrical about.

For instance, you can cut gorgeous from gorgeous garden and still get across the same sentiment – that it’s beautiful – in a more objective way with the copy that accompanies it. As a quick example:

“The hotel’s gorgeous garden, which features a water-lily topped pond and an arboretum that is home to over 1,000 species of tree, is one of the attractions here.”

It’s the same logic that applies to copy like, “explore magical Lisbon …”, “this exquisite early 20th century sideboard is …”, and “where you’ll discover a stunning rock garden …”.

Kill these adjectives and you lose nothing and gain plenty. Your copy, now a little tighter and less excessive, will now be markedly improved.

Key takeaways

The reality is that underperforming adjectives and adverbs will creep into your copy. There are a multitude of reasons for this, whether it’s copy produced at speed or a lack of quality editing at play (to name but a couple). It’s an unfortunate fact of online writing.

But if you’re meticulous about your use of adjectives and adverbs, in contrast to many of your competitors, then you’re positioning yourself as a brand that has high standards, cares deeply about quality, and is focused on delivering purposeful and engaging content.

And you’re also setting yourself up for success. Whether it’s a landing page optimised for SEO that delivers more traffic or a thought leadership piece that results in a prospect getting in touch, the better the quality of your content, the greater the chances of it delivering on the desired results.

So, as good as adjectives and adverbs are, only include them in your content only if you're confident they’re going to improve your copy. And if not, to use a footballing analogy, leave them on the bench. You’ll know when it’s the right time to bring them on.


Need help figuring out if your content is being weighed down by adjectives and adverbs? Want to know if your copy is falling short in other areas? Our editorial team is ready and waiting. Get in touch today and let’s talk.


Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Rich Kimber whose handy writing tips helped inspire this series.

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