Updated: May 16, 2021
We've all heard the advice concerning adverbs, scattered liberally about the verges of the road to hell, but what about the less vilified adjective? Can they be trusted or are they also lurking on the dark path?
In my Editing Cave posts, I use real world editing issues that I've come across in my work - I never name names and I always reword examples to share any blushes (except my own - those I will shamelessly share!)
This week I thought I'd explore overused adjectives.
Its bright headlights almost blinded me ... the blaring horn getting louder ... the red car was going to hit.
This is an altered series of sentences from a piece I've been working on. What's wrong with it? It's descriptive, active and shows the situation worsening, increasing the tension until we're staring down the number plate of destiny. But what is the description actually bringing to the scene? Is it adding - as any adjective worthy of its place should - or is it doing the opposite? Let's read the examples again, with the adjectives stripped out.
Its headlights almost blinded me ... the horn getting louder ... the car was going to hit.
This carries much more weight, more immediacy. The reader is directed straight to the action and the brevity lends itself to the seriousness of the situation. Because after all, when you're about to be hit by a car, you don't give a fig what colour it is.
Here are my top tips for using adjectives sparingly
Read your paragraph aloud and ask: do the adjectives detract from the impact of your nouns?
If you need an adjective, choose the best one you can - for example instead of bright headlights, try blinding headlights
Replace the noun you're describing with a better noun: High-beams.
All this talk of cars and adjectives brings to mind a favourite quote from the movie of The English Patient:
A thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it. Big car, slow car, chauffeur-driven car, still a car. ~ Count László Ede Almásy (the fictional version)
This line is followed by Maddox, being less aloof and intellectual, remarking on such things as broken cars not being much use. He's right of course, but still, I'm largely with Almásy. A thing is just a thing and beauty (or any other trait you may want to bestow on it) is in the eye of the beholder aka the reader.
In other words, show us the thing with narrative, rather than telling us with a word.
How does this relate to children's fiction?
It may be tempting to think that for younger readers, you'll need more adjectives, after all children are less skilled in the nuance of language and not as likely to pick up on subtle description. But I disagree - for me, it's not a question of more or less, rather, choosing the right words at the right time. Children are generally far more skilled at imagining a thing, so unless you specifically need to describe a fast car, 'car' will do, or again - look to improve that noun ... how about, Ferrari? Let the child fill in the gaps in their mind - they will no doubt imagine a more wonderful car than you ever could!
What's your most overused adjective? Mine is probably little ... or alarming.
Join me next time for more tips from the editing cave, and if you'd like entry to the cave, check out the service I offer: click below and say hello
From EmDashED Freelance Novel Editing