Thursday, May 5, 2011

Check Your Adjectives at the Door

Weak modifiers are usually the first words to be tackled in the editing phase, but you can improve your writing skills by choosing these more wisely in your early drafts too. Each time you select a noun or verb, and then use another word (or a string of words) to modify it, you weaken the quality of your writing.

Here are some points to consider when you plan your characters and settings and write those first descriptions:

Overused Modifiers Don’t Register
The beautiful girl
The tall, dark, handsome man
The lovely day
The quaint town
If you think your character is “beautiful”, show your readers what that means to you. Do you mean “inner beauty” that shines through and gives her a deeper radiance, or do you mean “superficial, airbrushed looks”?

Describe what it is about her that readers need to judge her on. Here you, as a writer, give up control in exchange for drawing your reader in more deeply. Allowing readers to make up their own minds gives them ownership in the story, which in turn makes them care more about the outcome.

Not every reader will decide your character is beautiful, but ask yourself whether it matters that the reader feels exactly the same way you do. If one reader decides she’s smart and tough, another thinks she’s kind, and another picks up that she tries hard to understand concepts that she finds difficult – at least your readers have an opinion about her.

The Rhythm of Modifiers Can Be Jarring

You can unintentionally create a cadence with too many modifiers in a paragraph. This is especially true for two adjectives before a noun – it always reminds me of the opening beat for Queen’s We Will Rock You.
The tall, blond man opened the big, wooden box, revealing a strange, red shape on a smooth, satin cushion.

Try to train yourself to notice adjectives when you write them so that you can demand stronger writing from yourself. Asking yourself how you want your reader to react to a character could lead to the development of new and important subplots. And all because you removed an adjective.

Do you notice adjectives more when you write, or when you read a book by someone else?

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Read up more on Grammar and Punctuation or browse through her Resources for Writers.

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  1. Splendid post. I've posted on of my old flash fiction stories on my blog today and I'm sure it would have been much better if I'd read this first.

    Love the We Will Rock You connection!

  2. I've got mud on my face ... I'm big disgrace ... kickin' my story all over the place.

  3. This is such a great post. Over-controlling the reader's impression is simply translating film to the page, when the literary art can be so much more. Suggesting characterization and plot through important details is key, of course--but leave some room for the reader to bring something of her own to the piece.

  4. Description never comes easy, so I usually under-describe. When I try to enrich things, it looks forced. Browne & King warned about overusing adjectives, and I felt like I was one step ahead of the game in that chapter! (Doesn't mean my descriptions were any good, though)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. I think I'm definitely guilty of the 'two adjectives before a noun' thing, certainly in my early drafts. I'm learning to spot them but it's definitely easier to see them in someone else's writing than it is my own.

  6. Also...I like the word 'definitely' :)

  7. Over-adjectiving ( my word-making there) and over-describing are two areas my writing life needs improvement. This is a very helpful post. I created a list of blog posts to return to during revision; this is now on it.

  8. This tends to be a problem for me, so I keep a thesaurus handy to replace modifiers I overuse with something less cliche.

  9. LOL, Christopher. I am sure you are not alone in having mud on your face.

    Very helpful post, El. Especially liked: "Allowing readers to make up their own minds gives them ownership in the story, which in turn makes them care more about the outcome."

  10. Great post. I just read Stephen King's "On Writing," and I love his take on not physically describing each character. Instead of noting hair, eye color and outfits, he summarized Carrie (in "Carrie") as something like pimple-faced and unwashed, which instantly gives me a visual. King thinks it lets the reader put themselves in the story more, seeing the girl in high school we remember rather than his own description. It seems so simple a concept, but I'm finding it definitely takes practice and repitition to write that way consistently.

  11. I've been thinking a lot about character descriptions... in particular, because I've lately read several books with strong protagonists, but I have no clear sense of what these people look like. I should go back and figure out what that's about... not enough adjectives? Weak ones?

  12. Some very good points. I think the cadence issue is oft-overlooked by writers when it comes to removing adjectives. I know that I now have something concrete to look out for! Thanks for that!

  13. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil


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