Thursday, May 15, 2014

About Adjectives--Use But Don't Abuse

Mark Twain

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”― Mark Twain


Author, Mark Twain, lived and wrote in the mid-nineteenth century. Even so, his advice to writers is still pertinent in ourown twenty-first century. The quote above is part of a letter he wrote to a young writer. What is above is important, but take a look at more of what he wrote:

     “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

We would be wise to pay attention to this advice. One of the marks of a newbie writer is that he/she tends to use a plethora of adjectives. This kind of writing reminds me of a woman who wears a dress with too many ruffles, then adds several necklaces, bracelets and over-sized earrings. Another woman who enters a ballroom in a dress with simple lines and only a bit of jewelery will stand out. Elegance in simplicity. That is the way our sentences should read, as well.

I was once part of an online writing community which was not a critique group but one that posted writing of many members. A young woman joined and posted stories on a regular basis. Most were memoir pieces with the basic story usually somethng interesting with take-away value. But--and this is a huge 'but'--she gathered adjectives like daisies in a field and sprinkled them throughout her narrative. Where one adjective might enhance, she tossed in three or even four. It got to the point that I had trouble reading her work as it became almost nauseating to read the many flowery adjectives she used. I know the poor girl felt she was adding a great deal to the story by doing this but I doubt that she ever had anything published by an editor. 

Adjectives like very and really add nothing much more than what you were trying to say in the first place. Some writers feel that these words emphasize what they are saying but I think they can be distracting.  It's also distracting to find a noun with three adjectives floating before it. One will do nicely. Besides that, every noun does not require an adjective. Use them too often and you weaken your piece. Mr. Twain said it and I concur.  

I have to admit that I have used adjectives a bit carelessly at times in my own writing. It's something that critiquers pointed out to me in my early days of writing. I have tried to eliminate those unneeded words like very and really and seldom use multiple adjectives for one noun. I know that when I follow the advice Mr. Twain left us, my writing is stronger and more readable. 

Take a favorite piece of writing from your files and go through it highlighting the adjectives. Then, take a look and see if you've used far too many or the right amount. Rewrite the piece being careful to not overuse adjectives. Which version is stronger? You decide. 

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