Friday, January 24, 2014

So What's So Wrong with Adjectives, Anyway?

One of the seemingly inviolate rules of modern writing is to keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. Are adjectives and adverbs really that bad?

Yes and no.

They are fine words, in and of themselves. This is my fifth sentence in this post and I've already used several great adjectives. If I hadn't, the tone of the piece would be different. So what's wrong with adjectives, anyway.

It's not so much the adjectives that are bad. It's the quality and quantity of the adjectives.

Most of us were taught somewhere in grammar school that adjectives make writing more descriptive. Some of the first positive critiques our writing received might have been from teachers complimenting how well we described things when we piled on adjectives. Our peers were writing "The car drove fast on the road" while we budding authors spruced things up and wrote that "The shiny little yellow car drove very fast on the long dusty road."

When learning to write and learning the parts of speech, adjectives received accolades. So what happened? What changed?

Serious writing at a professional level requires strong nouns and verbs. Adjectives often highlight the weakness of a writer's nouns. Likewise, adverbs point a long pointy finger at weak verbs.

When you see a string of adjectives before one of your nouns, look carefully at the noun and the context surrounding it. In our quest to "show, don't tell," adjectives are not our friends. Replace the noun with something more specific. "Volvo," "AMC Pacer," "Suburban," and "Dodge 4x4" are much more specific than "car"--even if the car is shiny and little and yellow--and do additional work by telling you something about the person who is driving the car. The driver of a vintage MG is probably a different kind of character than the guy in a Hummer.

Replace the adjective with specifics, add the kind of sensory input through which we experience the real world, and, if appropriate in the context, include the reaction of your character. If you really need the helper words, keep them. That a 4x4 is mud-drenched might be a critical detail. And it's certainly more vivid than a "dirty truck."

One of the problems with many adjectives is that they are abstractions. "Beautiful" doesn't give your reader anything concrete to picture. What does "beautiful" even mean? How am I supposed to react to it? Is my beautiful the same as yours? Probably not.  Concrete language creates an image. Abstractions create a fuzzy haze.

In many cases, it's OK for two readers to picture something differently. The reader's imagination fills in the holes you leave, which is why in today's writing you seldom see the same kinds of lengthy descriptions of characters as were common 100 years ago. Today, the writer provides just enough description to trigger the reader's imagination. Still, the better your images, the more engaging the writing.

Adverbs have similar problems. They often point to verbs that are not doing their jobs. What does it mean if a characters runs slowly? Is she slow because she's out of shape? Is she running as fast as she can, but that happens to not be especially swift? Try replacing the verb-adverb combination with a better verb that shows what you mean by "ran slowly." Like "jogged." "Lumbered." "Trotted." Each of those means something different and says more about your character than "ran slowly."

In the end, the decision about whether the adjectives and adverbs are helping the nouns and verbs pull their weight or enabling their laziness is yours. But when you revise, look specifically for nouns and verbs that are combined with those helper words. Look at each one and decide whether it says what you want, as strongly as it can.



Ryan Hancock said...

I think a good rule to remember is to gauge the importance of the scene or emotion. If its super important, take time to show clues to their emotional state, if its not a main scene, sometimes it's better to throw in a couple adj or....dare I say it....adverbs. Yes it's telling, but sometimes the pace gets bogged down by too much unnecessary "showing."
Incidentally, I know this is not the most appropriate place to post this, but I wonder how readers of your blog would react to the controversy going on at Writer Beware. Do you think "Clearplay for eBooks" is a slap in the face to authors?

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Ryan.

For whatever it's worth, I am not a fan of the Netflicks/ClearPlay kind of filtering. I don't think anybody should have the right to alter a copyrighted book without the copyright holder's permission. Just my opinion, and I won't get into a debate in these comments. But you asked. For the record, I spent maybe two minutes scanning the discussion about story surgeon, so I'm not going to pretend to be informed. I wouldn't use it, for myself or my kids.