The Case Against Adjectives
Adjectives and adverbs can be used responsibly, but too much adornment can weigh your writing down
When I lead a workshop, I often say on the first day “I hate adjectives.” I see the participants’ eyes widen in fear, shock, or contemplation. Let me explain.
While I was in graduate school for my MFA, a good decade ago, I read The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Lukeman, a former literary agent, breaks his advice down at the line level as well as addressing the overall goals of writing. Each chapter ends with assignments that apply his advice. Lukeman is direct about what excites and bores him. It’s not an intimidating book so much as a reality check to consider what you may be doing without being conscious of it. He speaks to the reader as prospective editor, declaring we need confidence.
As an editorial assistant at the time, of course I wanted those tools — tools I felt I wasn’t getting in my MFA program so that I could solidify my style of writing for my career. I was eager to learn everything and this was where I was going to learn it. Like the nerd I am — yes, I was that person on honor roll/dean’s list and proud, dammit — I took to each chapter’s exercises with the ambition of finding the salve to any and all of my writer issues.
In Chapter 2 I hit his advice on adjectives and adverbs.
“The quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript,” Lukeman wrote, “is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs.” He goes on to list the six reasons why manuscripts reliant on adjectives and adverbs don’t work:
- less is more;
- writers shouldn’t underestimate the reader by assuming they can’t see what you want them to;
- writers should always make the reader use their imagination;
- the most overused adjectives and adverbs (big, small, wide, heavy, pretty, etc.) are common words that don’t add much to your writing;
- they may not pack as much power as you think;
- and, it can make for some slow reading despite intentions.
By the time I finished that chapter, let alone his book, I was a convert. I hated adjectives and adverbs. They were “weak”! They didn’t add anything! Words had to pack a punch! To the thesaurus! To this day The First Five Pages is a book I recommend and use in line-editing workshops to help people look closer at editing on a micro level. Lukeman’s book isn’t the only one to note this; William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style also mentions using concrete words and omitting anything unnecessary. And that was published in the 1920s.
Now, I’ve toned down a bit in the past ten years, in some ways at least. My dislike for adjectives and adverbs is not as vehement. But I still agree with Lukeman that the abundant use of them brings something down in the writing rather than ramping it up. Just this weekend, after editing a piece rife with adjectives, I started reading a published book that was well-received. I went into this book eager to not edit and simply let myself fall into the content. That didn’t happen. Before I was even done with the introduction, I was bombarded with adjectives describing everything the narrator and those around them wore, as well as the sky and the club and the city. There was the slinky and sparkly skirt. The dazzling city. The loud music. The pretty people. Too much! The weight of all those adjectives and adverbs made it impossible for me to turn off my editor brain and enjoy the story.
Before I was even done with the introduction, I was bombarded with adjectives describing everything the narrator and those around them wore, as well as the sky and the club and the city.
Nope, I said and turned on Stranger Things 2 instead.
It is possible to write a long sentence that’s not a weighed-down sentence. There are pieces like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” that are actually one sentence (with the help of commas and semicolons). But sentences that are over-reliant on adverbs and adjectives don’t just get longer; they get heavier.
Case in point:
After Ryan broke up with me, I dragged myself upstairs to my wooden, four-post bed and plush, overstuffed pillows where I sleepily rested my melancholy head, that is until my brother came and got me for evening dinner.
I made that one up, but I have received work laden with this many adjectives in one sentence. Contrast this with a description in Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn:
Kings County Hospital. No rooms, just wards. Slide a curtain back and there’s a baby crying. Slide another one and there’s a girl with the crazily hanging arm. Curtains and children. Nurses and noise. Where was my brother?
Minimal usage. Clear visuals. Makes me fill in some of the blanks but provides the specifics I need to see the girl, the baby, and hear the noise that often blankets a hospital.
Here’s another, less weighed down, example:
I yawned tiredly from the day’s events.
Not horrible, but you can also keep it simple: I yawned, tired from the day’s events. Or: I yawned.
Or, instead of leaning on an adverb, heighten it with specifics: As soon as I came home I plopped myself on the sofa. I didn’t have the energy to take off my coat.
One of the best poetry collections I read last year was Counting Descent by Clint Smith. Here’s a bit of Smith’s poem, “Passed Down.”
Sometimes I forget there are freckles
on my face. It’s the sort of thing where
I’m not always proud of my skin
for being light enough to illuminate the patches
of darkness that emerge from beneath it.
There are many ways that Smith could’ve approached this description of his face, the tone of his skin, and the feelings that stem from observation. He could’ve said he was light brown or compared his shade to food, something many have said not to do. But what he chose was to be distinct with the smattering of (dark) freckles across his lighter skin tone as a Black man. “Patches of darkness” is what stands out to me here. “I’m not always proud of my skin” is what makes me re-read this poem. In the economy and the precision of his choices I can comprehend this pain without being given a laundry list of adjectives and adverbs while also not needing anything more in general to understand this inner conflict.
When nothing else can be gleaned but that someone is tall, pretty, old, young; or that their home is big, square, bright; or that someone’s wedding dress is cute, expensive, ivory, I’m not seeing details so much as a checklist.
Adverbs and adjectives can and have been used effectively. “Protests exploded nationally. Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea assumed totemic power,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates in “Fear of a Black President” in The Atlantic. Here “power” is a good word in and of itself, but Coates speaks to the symbolism of that power when it came to Trayvon Martin’s murder. To not recognize that candy and tea along with hoodies brought a visual that is both innocent and simplistic belies the galling nature of Martin’s death.
Often, adjectives and adverbs serve as a crutch for lazy writing. This can come about when presenting people as much as describing worlds. Adjectives/adverbs exist for a reason and, yes, they can be helpful. (I’m sure I’ve used several in this piece alone.) Yet when nothing else can be gleaned but that someone is tall, pretty, old, young; or that their home is big, square, bright; or that someone’s wedding dress is cute, expensive, ivory, I’m not seeing details so much as a checklist. Maybe this is one of those controversial opinions. In reality I don’t hate adjectives and adverbs; they definitely have their place in writing. But, before adding any into your work, consider whether they’re adding that desired description or an unnecessary weight.