Another blog from my archives, first written about 3 years ago, this time about adjectives.
When I was at school (a long time ago!), my English teachers
insisted we used lots of adjectives to make our writing more descriptive. In contrast, writers today are warned against the
overuse of adjectives.
Various reasons are given for this: too many adjectives give
your novel a ‘purple prose’ tint, or clutter the text with unnecessary
modifiers, or give the impression that the writer cannot quite find the right
Mark Twain said: "As to the adjective, when in doubt,
strike it out.'
The question is – which adjectives should you strike out?
First there are the redundant adjectives – the tiny kitten
(aren’t all kittens tiny?), the large mountain (ever seen a small mountain?),
the narrow alley (an alley IS a narrow passage), the cold snow (if snow wasn’t
cold, it would be water!). Omit the adjective if the noun is self-explanatory.
Secondly, there are the adjectives which, with their nouns,
can be replaced with a much more descriptive word e.g. ‘a downpour flooded the
streets’ instead of ‘heavy rain flooded the streets’, or ‘the witch cackled’
instead of ‘the witch gave an evil, sharp laugh’.
There are also some adjectives which have become almost
meaningless and should be avoided (except in dialogue), including wonderful,
lovely, pretty, stupid, foolish, pleasant, comely, horrid – and the obvious
However, a story without any adjectives could end up as very
clinical and dry. As with most things, moderation is the key. We are not
advised to avoid adjectives altogether, but to avoid overusing them.
Eliminating all adjectives would be as big a mistake as
overusing them. Adjectives can clarify meaning and add colour to our writing,
and can be used to convey the precise shade of meaning we want to achieve. We
should save them for the moments when we really need them and then use them
selectively – and sparsely. Too often we feel the need to beef up our nouns in
an effort to get our point across.
dark, dreary house had an empty, suspicious feel to it, the thick air stale and
sour with undefined, scary kitchen odors. Are all these adjectives
necessary? A tighter, more dramatic description would be: The house
had an empty feeling to it, the air stale with undefined kitchen odors.
Use adjectives only to highlight something the noun can’t highlight.
We’ve already seen that the ‘narrow alley’ has a redundant adjective, but what
about the ‘dark alley’ or the ‘filthy alley’?
Not all alleys are dark or filthy so in these examples, the adjectives
are adding something that is not already shown by the noun. This is the main reason for using an
And now I’m off to take my own advice, and look through my current story for