Lose the Adjectives

I came across something else of interest in the book that I am reading, called “Writing a Novel” by Nigel Watts. In the chapter on style he cautions writers to beware of overusing adjectives and adverbs. One of the exercises at the end of the chapter is to write a descriptive passage without using them. In fact, he also encourages the reader to leave out abstract nouns, which is a point that I don’t necessarily agree with per my comments below.

I found this particular topic interesting in terms of the effects that you can achieve without having to use adjectives and adverbs. Nevertheless, I am not advocating that we leave them out altogether, but it’s amazing how descriptive verbs can be. Nigel Watts suggests looking at the work of authors you admire to see how they deal with certain situations. As I was reading a Val McDermid book at the time, and she is one of my favourite crime authors, I had a look. To my amazement she had managed to write an entire descriptive scene and hardly used any adjectives at all – remarkable!

Charles DickensUnfortunately, due to copyright laws I am unable to quote the passage from Val McDermid’s book. However, it’s easy to compare contemporary writers to those of a bygone era who used a lot of adjectives and adverbs. In fact, my personal feeling is that adjectives and adverbs have their uses, but authors such as Dickens overused them, and I much prefer contemporary writing styles. Here is an excerpt from David Copperfield:

“My aunt was a tall, hard-featured lady, but by no means ill-looking. There was an inflexibility in her face, in her voice, in her gait and carriage, amply sufficient to account for the effect she had made upon a gentle creature like my mother; but her features were rather handsome than otherwise, though unbending and austere. I particularly noticed she had a very quick, bright eye. Her hair, which was grey, was arranged in two plain divisions, under what I believe would be called a mob-cap; I mean a cap, much more common then than now, with side-pieces fastening under the chin. Her dress was of a lavender colour, and perfectly neat; but scantily made, as if she desired to be as little encumbered as possible.”

Try comparing that passage to one from a book by one of today’s popular authors and you’ll probably see a vast difference in the number of adjectives and adverbs used.

Instead, verbs can be used to great effect. One example the author used is walking, which can be described as: shuffling, creeping, stepping, pacing, striding, dawdling etc. Each of these creates a different image in the reader’s mind. Another example relates to the various verbs used to describe eating: chew, gulp, devour, swallow, bite, consume, nibble, crunch etc. Again, each one paints a different picture in the reader’s imagination. ‘Devour’ for me brings to mind someone who is aggressive in their behaviour and attacks their food as though it is the enemy. ‘Nibble’ on the other hand, makes me think of someone who is nervous, reserved or picky.

I think that we can achieve similar effects with our choice of nouns or abstract nouns, for example, a stench is much more offensive than a smell whilst an aroma is more appealing. Having saidStorm that, the author of the aforementioned book also cautions against the use of abstract nouns because they are imprecise whereas if you describe a scene by painting a picture in the reader’s mind, it is more definite. The example, he gives is when describing the ‘devastation’ caused by a storm. The reason that the abstract noun ‘devastation’ is imprecise is because people interpret it in different ways. So, instead of using this abstract noun, you could describe the damage caused by the storm, which would paint a clearer picture in the mind of the reader. For example, you could describe the wind tearing the branches from trees.

This is just another idea that will stay in the back of my mind whilst I’m writing fiction. Hopefully it will help to improve the way I write. I would love to read your thoughts on the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs.

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4 thoughts on “Lose the Adjectives

  1. I find overuse of adjectives and adverbs slows down the reader. It might be down to the time we have available to us to read nowadays but I find reading something like Dickens is time consuming and I certainly don’t have that time available. I find contemporary writers keep the story moving along, the writing is much tighter and I therefore prefer this style.

  2. I agree with you Georgia. I find reading Dickens a bit of a chore. I do enjoy Shakespeare although I prefer to see it performed, preferably after I’ve read a synopsis to make sure I don’t miss anything because the plots are so intricate and I’ve got the attention span of a three year old. My mind tends to wander onto other things and I have to keep asking my husband what’s happening, much to his annoyance – haha! I wish I had the time to read Shakespeare as I used to do years ago because I find his use of language, and the way he weaves the intricate plots and sub-plots, fascinating but my mind is just so crowded with other things these days. 🙂

  3. I enjoyed this post Diane. Adjectives were once the fashion it seems, but nowadays we mostly appreciate a more economical style of writing. I agree with you about the so called classics. I am reading Frankenstein at the moment, which I am enjoying though it is very over written in my humble opinion. Writing a descriptive scene with no adjectives and adverbs sounds like a great challenge.

    • Thanks Guy. I must admit that I didn’t do any of the exercises that required you to write a descriptive scene with no adjectives or adverbs, but it’s certainly something that I’ll bear in mind whilst I’m writing. I don’t think I’ll drop the adjectives and adverbs altogether, but it will be fun experimenting with the use of descriptive verbs. 🙂

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