Less Is More In Creative Writing – Even At 11-Plus!

Why vocabulary is about quality, not quantity, why adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly … and what Benjamin Franklin had to say on the subject

Hatter With A Few Words But Even More Hats
Robert Lomax
Robert is a teacher and educational author. His books and online materials are popular in the UK and internationally. For a full biography, click here.

Because they are keen to show off their vocabulary, and because they have been taught to write descriptively, children often produce sentences like this:

“Fatima walked slowly between the tall, swaying, gloomy trees, her long, frizzy hair tied up tight against the strong, cold wind.”

There is a lot to be said for this: it creates atmosphere, and we can clearly imagine Fatima as she walks through the forest.

However, a sentence of this kind suggests to me that the student has been taught to use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.

What they haven’t been taught is to use them well.

Because there are so many adjectives in the sentence, few readers will take the time to notice and fully consider the really good ones.

“Tall”, “long”, “strong” and “cold” are very obvious words, and they are all either unimportant, or things which a reader would intuit without being told them.

Let’s take them out, and look at the sentence again:

“Fatima walked slowly between the swaying, gloomy trees, her frizzy hair tied up tight against the wind.”

This is a far better sentence already. It is much more direct, and there is nothing to distract the reader from the things that matter.

In an exam story, it would be likely to score much better than the original sentence, because rather than the examiner simply thinking “This student knows lots of adjectives”, they are forced to pay attention to “gloomy” and “frizzy” (and to “swaying”, which is a verb but plays an adjectival role here). These aren’t such obvious adjectives as the ones I’ve removed, and they tell us very precise, interesting things about Fatima and her surroundings.

The examiner is likely to think, “This student has made an excellent choice of adjectives” – which is much better than simply noting that a child has used lots of them.

Now I’d like to look at the adverbial phrase, “walked slowly”.

One of the things I say to children time and again is that if you need to use an adverb, it may be because your verb is not strong enough.

OK, she was walking slowly; but in what way? Did she meander or wander? Was she tiptoeing, or was she stalking between the trees?

Any of these verbs would be far more interesting and precise than “walked slowly”.

Here’s the sentence again, with one of the suggestions I just made:

“Fatima meandered between the swaying, gloomy trees, her frizzy hair tied up tight against the wind.”

Now we have something really good.

The important thing about this sentence is that it doesn’t look childish. An adult reader will feel that it could have been written by a mature writer.

In the context of 11-plus, it is likely to impress a marker far more than the sentence at the top.

For this reason, beware of schoolteachers who tell your child to use as many descriptive words as they can, and to prioritise showing off their vocabulary. They are teaching their students to write badly – which no teacher should ever do – and they are also doing them no favours for the 11-plus.

A wide vocabulary is very important, but not so that a child can use all of it at once!

Instead, the point of knowing many words is that it allows a writer, whether an adult or a child, to choose a good word in each circumstance.

Sometimes the best word will be complex, but sometimes it will be a simple one.

Children should practise describing as WELL as possible, not as MUCH as possible, and choosing the most suitable vocabulary – not the most extravagant – for the task at hand.

This approach will serve them best in life, and in the 11-plus.


Footnote: Benjamin Franklin and the hatter

Benjamin Franklin told a splendid anecdote which illustrates my point in a different way. Here it is, as recorded by Thomas Jefferson:

“When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome sign-board, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined; but he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats,’ which show he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, ‘John Thompson sells hats.’ ‘Sells hats,’ says his next friend! Why nobody will expect you to give them away, what then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.”

The following video shows how I mark students’ creative writing. It might give you some useful ideas.

You can turn on subtitles by clicking the three dots or the subtitles symbol in the bottom-right corner of the video. You can also choose to watch in fullscreen mode.

If you’re interested in sending me your child’s work for marking and detailed advice, have a look at the 11 Plus Lifeline page on this website, or send me an email.

If you found these story writing tips useful or if you have a question, please leave a comment below! I’d love to have your feedback. (Tick the “Receive email updates” box to receive an email when I reply.)

For the most comprehensive range of resources to help with preparation for the 11+ exam, you might like to try 11 Plus Lifeline (with a money-back guarantee in the first month). Every practice paper has full example solutions, with a detailed discussion and explanation for every question – like being taught by an excellent private tutor. There’s lots of material to help develop creative, high-scoring exam stories!

According to Tutorful, it’s “the gold standard for independent and grammar school 11-plus preparation”.

If you’d like further advice about DIY 11-plus preparation, my free video series gives some helpful pointers, and comes with an extensive set of free RSL practice papers, example answers and solutions:


  1. Sarika Singh

    great advice

    • Robert


  2. Mohammed Shafiq

    Interesting article with sound advice! Thanks.

    • Robert

      I’m glad! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Sucheta Talwar

    Hello Robert,
    I am looking for a committed regular support for my son in creative writing who is 13years old. He is afraid of writing we need someone who can teach him how to win in f his fear and develop a inclination towards writing .
    Sucheta Talwar

    • Robert

      I’m afraid I am not a tutor nowadays, and haven’t been for a few years. I hope you find somebody good. The very best of luck to your son!

  4. Lyndall Davey

    As always- focused, relevant tips

    • Robert

      Thank you!


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