by Carolyn Morrison
Long ago, in high school, I had a writerly friend. We would share poems we had written and exchange notebooks in a breathless moment. He took my crazy, cursive loping stanzas that leapt across margins, and I accepted his stark blocks of prose that looked rubberstamped except for the distinctive characteristic of his hard-pressed, penciled, all-capital letters.
His advice was merciless—kill the adjectives.
I was always most incensed when he rallied against my adjectives. What harm did they do, adding life and color (or, more likely, a miserable mood befitting adolescence) to nouns in need of support?
An article by writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant found in the latest Conversion Chronicles newsletter, a website dedicated to helping people write highly-effective content for their own websites, suggests that adjectives themselves may help to kill off your audience if you let them run amok in your writing.
Gray-Grant’s Three Adjective Pitfalls
- Adjectives are imprecise.
“Stunning” is an example of an overused adjective with a broad meaning. Especially common in social media, this is the go-to kudos comment for a great posted photograph. But, with some in-depth analytical thinking, stunning just sounds shocking, electrifying, and downright painful, and a great macro-shot of a gerbera daisy shouldn’t hurt.
- Adjectives mean different things to different people.
This problem is similar to number one, but advances the vagary of many adjectives to account for different social and cultural perceptions. Take for example the emotional state of someone feeling “blue.” Considering emotive and psychological color representations are not the same the world over. This state of being is sure to cause confusion somewhere as digital writing travels around the globe.
- Adjectives sound too hype-y and sales-y.
In many situations, overuse or misuse of adjectives leaves an audience with a bad taste in their mouth. Take redundant food descriptors for example, like “doughy,” “cheesy,” “rich,” and “creamy.” All of these tasty tidbits may be true to the product, but they are so standard, the product has no chance of standing out if standing by its written bio alone.
So, how do you add pizazz to your writing without bedazzling the pants off of it? Gray-Grant chooses to highlight a sentence’s verbs in a powerful way, while limiting the baggage that comes with the adjective + noun relationship.
Gray-Grant reminds us that verbs don’t have to be lackluster:
“Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.”
Sometimes, it’s just about role reversal to add a new dynamic to the sentence. Instead of “whispering pines,” let the pines actually do the whispering, as in “the pines whisper in the breeze.”
For more adjective admonitions, try guidance from Writer’s Digest, a list of the internet’s most played-out adjectives from Motherboard, and adjectives to avoid professionally.