A Note on Adjectives

739211_26781351Working with authors is a wonderful thing. You get to be the first to read what has poured from the very depths of someone’s soul before the ink even dries. You get to help them to shape, mend, and bend their characters and stories so that they are even better than they were before. I love that about authors, and I love that about fiction.

One thing, though, that I tend to see often is authors using the same adjectives over and over and over. Granted, I do work mostly with first time authors who are either self-publishing or going through an independent publisher, which means that sometimes their work is less polished than a seasoned writer’s.

One word that I simply cannot stand anymore is “delicious”. As only one editor on a team of three, as much as I protested its overuse, it remained. It was used to describe food—almost every single instance of food in the entire story.

Now, I’m not saying that a word can only be used once, but sometimes description is either unnecessary or laid on too thick. If you are writing a story where much of it takes place around a dinner table or in a kitchen, the descriptions are generally obvious:

She pulled the tray of cookies out of the oven and set it on the stove to cool.

The simplicity of that description is enough to make me smell fresh, hot cookies. I can even see the heat waves rising over the cookie sheet. Because just about everyone has seen something come out of an oven at some point, it does not need supplementary description.

If you find you are using description too often, you can even add it to dialogue if it’s absolutely necessary. This will give your dialogue a bit of pop, and take the description out of the narration.

“Of course!”, she said as she laid the tray of cookies aside to cool. 

Descriptive writing is a beautiful thing, when it’s done right. Just be sure to balance its use so that the story doesn’t get lost among too many adjectives.

If you really need to use description, and it’s working well in your story, take a glance at a thesaurus once in a while so that you don’t become repetitive. The sound and taste of the words in your mouth is just as important as how you hear them in your head. Pick words that slip in between others in a subtle way, words that will make the reader feel your point, instead of getting stopped up on a word that has appeared too many times.

There are tons of online resources out there, and my favourite thesaurus site is: http://thesaurus.com/.

What’s your relationship with adjectives like?

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11 thoughts on “A Note on Adjectives

  1. Great suggestions! Overusing adjectives is definitely one mistake I had to learn the hard way. Even using different adjectives to describe the same thing (i.e. switching “delicious” with “tasty” every now and then) takes away from the reader’s experience if done too much. Now I’m trying to show rather than tell. It brings the word count up quite a bit but at least it helps draw the reader in to the experience 🙂 By the way, I love your enthusiasm for editing! That’s awesome!

    • Glad I could be of some use! 🙂 That’s why I always suggest a thesaurus—descriptive writing is beautiful when done correctly. Switching up words is a great way to avoid boring your reader and adding some flavour to your work. And thanks, I love editing fiction!

  2. In my poetry, I use adjectives carefully–asking myself, do I really need this adjective? I admit, when I’m writing a book review for my blog, I’m less careful. If I head back to fiction…well, I figure there’s no need to go all Ernest Hemingway on myself.

    • I use a lot of adjectives when I write, but I think to have a good piece of writing, you need to use them correctly. Fit them together like a puzzle so that the writing flows smoothly and softly without causing your readers to roll their eyes. 🙂

  3. I’ve taken a poetry workshop class, and one of the things the professor talked about often was adjectives and adverbs, and how they need to be used sparingly. Especially adverbs. One of my biggest issues was depending on adjectives for strength when I ought to have focused on using strong verbs. Thesauri have been my saving grace in that respect =)

    A note on editing for extraneous adjectives: read it out loud. I hardly ever notice the same problems when I read quietly, so doing both helps with editing out adjectives that are overused or unnecessary.

    • I read out loud a lot when I am editing for myself and for clients. It’s a huge help. It’s easier to hear mistakes than to see them, and it helps to show where your writing is failing or succeeding. 🙂

  4. i haven’t really repeat the adjective a lot unless the character doesn’t have a name. you know like clumsy girl or bad boy ……. so i don’t really know if this would bore the reader or not……

    • Yes, that would be a habit to get out of if you are actually writing a story. I guess it would depend on the theme and tone of your story, but a character without a name would be hard to get attached to. It’s ok until you figure out a name, but you wouldn’t want to try to publish something like that.

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