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Ask The Paris Review

Improving Writing, Finding Happiness

May 18, 2012 | by

How do I improve my prose?

The poet and diplomat Paul Claudel once wrote, “To beware the adjective is the beginning of style.” I ought to have written “the French poet and diplomat” or “the great French poet and diplomat,” because sometimes an adjective is a helpful thing; it is easy to take such advice too much to heart. On the whole, though, Claudel is right: most prose gets better if you take out all the adjectives (and adverbs) that you can.

Hello, I have recently started reading your most wonderful publication, and I really like your recommendations based on books people have already read! Thank you for this and keep up the good work! Now, to the question about life, I put forth this question to a friend but he didn’t respond, maybe you can help? I’m happy with my life as it is today, but there is no joy of existence! I’ll try to explain this a little, for all that I have I still feel my life is incomplete! Can you help?

P.S. I have varied interests, wonderful family, friends, comforts, and all this keeps me happy, and busy, but that feeling of incompleteness always remains!

Thank you for your kind words about the Daily! Unfortunately, your question is beyond our pay grade. So I sent it to my mom. I half expected that she would tell you to meditate and drink fewer martinis, but then (as she says), she doesn't know you. Her response follows!

Your question about achieving true joy triggered an image of little Flora in Dickens’s Dombey and Sons. Never has there been such a joyful and generous creature. Then came Scrooge, after he learned that joy and generosity of spirit are inextricably linked. It seems to me that Dickens is onto something. I don't know you, so it's hard to say how you will find joy, but I would imagine that if you reached out beyond your family and friends—maybe to tutor a child who needs it, or read to someone in a nursing home, or even just give a ten-dollar bill to the next homeless guy who asks you for money—you may find that a certain amount of joy has been there all along, and you might begin to get the hang of it.

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  1. M.M. | May 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Isn’t reading the best way to improve one’s writing?

  2. Lorin Stein | May 18, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    In the long run, no doubt!

  3. Chris Roberts | May 18, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    It has to burn white inside of you, the faster you type…no relief…the hotter it gets.

  4. Yasemin Aydinoglu | May 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Reading, too but i think writing is the best way to improve one’s writing.

  5. scott | May 18, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    I would usually agree with removing adjectives and adverbs, but I don’t think its a hard fast rule.

    Can you image cooking without butter?

  6. Lorin Stein | May 18, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Oh, Scott, I agree! Claudel doesn’t say not to use adjectives; he says to fear them. And he doesn’t say that fearing them is the key to prose, only that it’s a beginning … (Of course, as a Frenchman, he would never have said the same of butter.)

  7. scott | May 18, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Well, I’m from the Savannah and if Paula Deen as thought me one thing its that butter is our friend !

    Pat Conroy uses a lot of adverbs and adjectives and my favorite, Tennessee Williams said, ” Why would I use 10 words when I can use 20 !”

    I am sure teachers and professors everywhere cringe at the thought of that, but T.W was a fine writer.

  8. Rose Gowen | May 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    I think looking for adjectives and adverbs is a good way to improve your writing; you may decide that you want or need them, but at least looking at them critically opens up your sentences again. Then, you can look to see if you have tics– if you rely too much on certain words or phrases or sentence structures. The main thing, I think, is to learn to see your sentences as open and changeable.

  9. Gintas | May 18, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I think the main thing is to ensure that you are thinking about communicating with the reader and not how complex and beautiful your writing is. Good writing is such that focuses on delivering the message to your reader with the maximum amount of clarity. Sometimes, this involves prose that is laden with adjectives and adverbs but I am of the opinion that often, the reader needs and desires less.

  10. z dylan brennan | May 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Oh the curse of the adjective! What fraudulence!

    You could’ve just combined both of your answers to describe the joy of never using an adjective…

    And please, dear Gintas, never again mention this idea that good writing should focus on “delivering the message to your reader.” That’s like saying buttered popcorn is the best Jelly Belly.

  11. Amar | May 18, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    To quote Beck “you can’t right if you can’t relate”.

  12. greg hoey | May 19, 2012 at 1:14 am

    adjectives and adverbs have their use and misuse.

  13. John B. | May 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    To beware the adjective, not beware of.

  14. Lorin Stein | May 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Yes, John B., you’re right! (So my ear tells me.) But why?

  15. Beat Schindler | May 26, 2012 at 7:42 am

    “To beware the adjective is the beginning of style” reminds me of this Mark Twain quote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

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