Tag Archives: using adjectives in prose

Conveying Mood part 2: adverbs #amwriting

Today is the second installment of a series on modifiers, words we use to describe nouns and verbs. I’m on a quest to find ways to use fewer of them and make the most of the ones I do use.

In the previous post, I  mentioned going to an online thesaurus and looking up your overall mood word. This is where you will find synonyms for your mood words and also the opposites.

In the root form, adverbs are adjectives, words that modify nouns. Add the suffix ‘ly’ to them, and they become words that modify verbs.

Adverbs tend to be fluffy. Most readers don’t like fluffy prose. I suggest you don’t muck up your modifiers by adding ‘ly’ at the end of them unless it is the only thing that works.

With that said, my rule is don’t write clumsy prose just to avoid using ‘ly.’

In the first draft, modifiers are brain-storming words. They show us what we intended to convey when we first wrote the narrative.

For that reason, they are essential parts of English and can’t be completely discarded as some deluded authors loudly swear they have done.

I suppose one could write a novel without using any modifiers whatsoever, but I wouldn’t want to read it. However, modifiers can weaken verbs by telling the story rather than showing it.

I don’t self-edit my first drafts as I write, so my prose is always a mess when I begin revisions.

This year’s NaNoWriMo novel was written with no outline, so it’s an example of my worst “thinking habits.” It is a sea of adverbs and adjectives, but these words are the roadmap that tells me what prose need reshaping to show the story.

At the time, I was imagining the scenes and plotting as I wrote. When I look back, the early drafts for all my work are littered with adverbs.

When you imagine your adverbs as signals from your creative mind, you see them a guide leading you to the story you really wanted to write.

In the second draft, I want to inject impact into the opening paragraphs and all the sentences that follow right to the grand finale. But I also want them to show what I envision.

That requires rewording the sentences to make them active. Look at your sentence structure.

Sentence structure matters.

Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are modifying affects how a reader perceives it. Noun-verb is a strong lead in. Nouns work best when one strong, well-chosen adjective shows us what the point-of-view characters sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes, rather than fluffing the verbs and hindering the action.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

The example sentence contains four nouns, one modifier (an adjective), and three verbs. The sentence is structured this way: noun-verb (sunlight glared) adjective-noun (cold fire), verb-adjective-noun (cast no warmth), and finally, verb-article-noun (burned the eyes).

Verb followed by noun shows us what the noun did. Verb-adjective-noun shows us how the noun looked (smelled, tasted, or felt) during the action.

To search for unnecessary adverbs, look for ‘ly’ words in MS Word:

1: Click replace in the upper right corner of the Home tab.

2: Type ly into the “Find What” box.

3: Leave the “Replace With” box blank.

4: Look at each instance individually and decide to keep the ly or delete it. Many words, such as early or easily, have ly as their suffix, so look at each instance and decide if it stays or goes.

5: Once you have decided, click find next and repeat the process.

The above instructions are for MS Word, but Google Docs and Open Office both have some kind of search and replace function. Go to the internet and find the instructions!

In the first draft, the important thing is to get the idea down without self-editing. For this reason, we don’t publish our first drafts.

If you are like me in your first drafts, cleaning up and strengthening the prose could take a while, especially in a large manuscript. However, it is part of the revision process and is well worth the time you put into it.

The English language has evolved over the last century. The word very has become a ‘fluff word’ that sticks out when we see it written too freely in a narrative. It has a purpose but is easy to overuse. In that case, it adds nothing of value to the prose, so editors will suggest you remove it to make your sentences stronger.

Below is a list of modifiers, words that paint an image of the world our characters inhabit. Some will change the voice from active to passive, so be wary of how you use them.

When you do use a modifier, be creative. Sometimes, using an unexpected adjective lends life to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Nouns like a well-placed modifier, but most of the time, verbs are stronger when they work alone.

313 Modifiers for Nouns

  • Abnormal
  • Absentminded
  • Accidental
  • Adventurous
  • Afterward
  • Almost
  • Always
  • Annual
  • Anxious
  • Arrogant
  • Awkward
  • Bashful
  • Beautiful
  • Bitter
  • Bleak
  • Blind
  • Blissful
  • Boastful
  • Bold
  • Brave
  • Brief
  • Bright
  • Brisk
  • Broad
  • Busy
  • Calm
  • Careful
  • Careless
  • Cautious
  • Certain
  • Cheerful
  • Clear
  • Clever
  • Close
  • Coaxing
  • Colorful
  • Common
  • Continual
  • Cool
  • Correct
  • Courageous
  • Cross
  • Cruel
  • Curious
  • Dainty
  • Dear
  • Deceiving
  • Deep
  • Defiant
  • Deliberate
  • Delightful
  • Diligent
  • Dim
  • Doubtful
  • Dreamy
  • Easy
  • Elegant
  • Energetic
  • Enormous
  • Enthusiastic
  • Equal
  • Especial
  • Even
  • Even
  • Eventual
  • Exact
  • Excited
  • Extreme
  • Fair
  • Faithful
  • Famous
  • Far
  • Fast
  • Fatal
  • Ferocious
  • Fervent
  • Fierce
  • Fond
  • Foolish
  • Fortunate
  • Frank
  • Frantic
  • Free
  • Frenetic
  • Frightful
  • Full
  • Furious
  • General
  • Generous
  • Gentle
  • Glad
  • Gleeful
  • Graceful
  • Grateful
  • Great
  • Greedy
  • Happy
  • Hasty
  • Healthy
  • Heavy
  • Helpful
  • Helpless
  • High
  • Honest
  • Hopeless
  • Hungry
  • Immediate
  • Innocent
  • Inquisitive
  • Instant
  • Intense
  • Intent
  • Interesting
  • Inward
  • Irritable
  • Jagged
  • Jealous
  • Jovial
  • Joyful
  • Joyous
  • Jubilant
  • Judgmental
  • Just
  • Keen
  • Kidding
  • Kind
  • Kindhearted
  • Knavish
  • Knowing
  • Knowledgeable
  • Kooky
  • Lazy
  • Less
  • Light
  • Like
  • Limp
  • Live
  • Lofty
  • Longing
  • Loose
  • Loud
  • Loving
  • Loyal
  • Mad
  • Majestic
  • Meaningful
  • Mechanical
  • Merry
  • Miserable
  • Mocking
  • Month
  • More
  • Mortal
  • Most
  • Mysterious
  • Natural
  • Near
  • Neat
  • Nervous
  • Never
  • Nice
  • Noisy
  • Not
  • Obedient
  • Obnoxious
  • Odd
  • Offensive
  • Official
  • Often
  • Open
  • Optimistic
  • Overconfident
  • Painful
  • Partial
  • Patient
  • Perfect
  • Physical
  • Playful
  • Polite
  • Poor
  • Positive
  • Potential
  • Powerful
  • Prompt
  • Proper
  • Punctual
  • Quaint
  • Queasy
  • Queer
  • Questionable
  • Quick
  • Quicker
  • Quiet
  • Quirky
  • Quizzical
  • Random
  • Rapid
  • Rare
  • Ready
  • Real
  • Reassuring
  • Reckless
  • Regular
  • Reluctant
  • Repeated
  • Reproachful
  • Restful
  • Righteous
  • Rightful
  • Rigid
  • Rough
  • Rude
  • Safe
  • Scarce
  • Scary
  • Searching
  • Sedate
  • Seldom
  • Selfish
  • Separate
  • Serious
  • Shaky
  • Sharp
  • Sheepish
  • Shrill
  • Shy
  • Silent
  • Sleepy
  • Slow
  • Smooth
  • Soft
  • Solemn
  • Solid
  • Sometimes
  • Soon
  • Speedy
  • Stealthy
  • Stern
  • Strict
  • Successful
  • Sudden
  • Supposed
  • Surprising
  • Suspicious
  • Sweet
  • Swift
  • Sympathetic
  • Tender
  • Tense
  • Terrible
  • Thankful
  • Thorough
  • Thoughtful
  • Tight
  • Tomorrow
  • Too
  • Tremendous
  • Triumphant
  • True
  • Truthful
  • Ultimate
  • Unabashed
  • Unaccountable
  • Unbearable
  • Unethical
  • Unexpected
  • Unfortunate
  • Unimpressive
  • Unnatural
  • Unnecessary
  • Upbeat
  • Upright
  • Upside-down
  • Upward
  • Urgent
  • Useful
  • Useless
  • Usual
  • Utter
  • Vacant
  • Vague
  • Vain
  • Valiant
  • Vast
  • Verbal
  • Very
  • Vicious
  • Victorious
  • Violent
  • Vivacious
  • Voluntary
  • Warm
  • Weak
  • Weary
  • Well
  • Wet
  • Whole
  • Wild
  • Willful
  • Wise
  • Woeful
  • Wonderful
  • Worried
  • Wrong
  • Yawning
  • Year
  • Yearning
  • Yesterday
  • Yielding
  • Youthful
  • Zealous
  • Zest
  • Zestful

Previous in this series:

Conveying Mood Part 1: Adjectives

Short Story part 1: word choice

The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere 

Theme part 1

Theme part 2


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Conveying Mood part 1: adjectives #amwriting

This week we are continuing our exploration of words. I’m on a quest to find ways to use fewer of them and make the most of the ones I do use.

I’ve said many times that words are the colors we use to show entire worlds. Today, I’m exploring the many ways we use words for better impact.

I like to find my information easily, so I make a new file for every story I write. Once I know what the mood for the story I intend to write is, I go out and look for the mood words I want to have on hand. I list them in a document that I will save in that file with a proper file name, such as: mood_words_Rainbows_End.

This takes very little time, and I have a supply of mood descriptors to draw on to build my world without having to stop and look things up. Having this list helps me avoid crutch-words.

Because I am currently writing several pieces with a Gothic mood, my example word last week was ominous. It is an adjective that conveys the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen.

But first, what is an adjective? For those of us who can’t remember what we ate for dinner last night, much less what we learned in grade school, adjectives are words or phrases that modify a noun, which is a person, place, or thing. They add to (or grammatically relate to) a noun and act to modify or describe it.

We don’t want to get crazy with adjectives, because they’re like salt–too much and you’ve ruined your food.

However, they are a fundamental part of English grammar, and while we can be sparing with them, we can’t eliminate them because (again) they are like salt: some are essential.

I use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. But if you don’t own a good thesaurus, the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus is your best friend. https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus

You will find many words, some of which are obscure.

Do yourself a favor and choose words that are fairly common, ones most readers with an average education won’t have to stop and look up.

Synonyms for ominous I can use: baleful, dire, direful, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words to subtly reinforce the mood: black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray/grey, lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber/sombre, sullen, sunless, threatening, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonyms for ominous, opposites I can use to provide contrast, so my mood is made more explicit: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous. [1]

Toward the end of my work, I will want things to feel hopeful. So, I have researched the word auspicious the same way as I did ominous.

Definition of auspicious: having qualities that inspire hope or pointing toward a happy outcome.

Synonyms for auspicious: bright, encouraging, fair, golden, heartening, hopeful, likely, optimistic, promising, propitious, rose-colored, roseate, rosy, upbeat.

Words related to auspicious:

cheering, comforting, reassuring, soothing, assured, confident, decisive, doubtless, positive, sure, unhesitating, favorable, good.

Antonyms for auspicious: bleak, dark, depressing, desperate, discouraging, disheartening, dismal, downbeat, dreary, gloomy, hopeless, inauspicious, pessimistic, unencouraging, unlikely, unpromising.

Near Antonyms for auspicious: cheerless, comfortless, doubtful, dubious, uncertain, grim, negative, unfavorable, funereal, glum, gray/grey, miserable, wretched. [2]

If you are writing any kind of genre work, the best way to deploy your descriptors is to find the word that conveys the atmosphere you want with the most force.

Sentence structure matters. Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are modifying affects a reader’s perception. They work best when showing us what the point-of-view characters sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

In the above sentence, the essential parts are structured this way: noun-verb (sunlight glared) adjective-noun (cold fire), verb-adjective-noun (cast no warmth), and finally, verb-article-noun (burned the eyes).

The scene could be shown in a multitude of ways, but a paragraph’s worth of world-building is pared down to 19 words, three of which are action words (verbs).

In my next post, we will go deeper into the uses and abuses of modifiers.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] “Ominous.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/ominous. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.

[2] “Auspicious.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/auspicious. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.


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