Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Adjective Abstinence

The best piece of writing advice I ever received was this: cross out all the adjectives and adverbs in your writing. Then, take a second look and only keep the ones that are absolutely necessary. Originally advocated by Mark Twain and highlighted in Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop, this simple task has dramatically improved my writing.

Instead of saying that someone is angry, describe an action that would indicate their anger. Let the reader do some work in interpreting your prose. I think writers, myself included, can make the mistake of thinking if they don’t explain the appearance of the setting or characters in their stories, then readers will be left with faceless shadows wandering around an empty box.

Consider the following example. In this scene, a teenager watches as his mother comes home from work.

She opens the door quickly and steps into the kitchen, looking professional but tired. She takes one look at the messy kitchen and laughs.

Now, scan the passage for adjectives and adverbs. You will find “quickly”, “professional”, “tired”, “messy” and “angry”. Ask yourself if these words are necessary to the plot and the feeling you are trying to evoke in this scene. Depending on the rest of the story, probably nothing will be lost if you delete the word “quickly”. So, delete it.

Before you decide to keep the other words, think if you can describe the scene in a different way that gets the point across. Consider the following rewrite:

She opens the door and steps into the kitchen. There are wrinkles in her suit and she carries her heels in one hand.

It is not necessary to delete adjectives from your writing entirely, but you may be surprised what happens when you force yourself to keep them to a minimum. I did.

So, take a step in the direction of literary purity. Sign the Adjective Abstinence Pledge below.

I, ____________, pledge to resist the pull of overusing adjectives even if my friends do it and even if my writing partner pressures me to do it. I will remain free from excessive adjectives until I am committed to a long-term book contract when I will then be free to write any way I darn well please. Adjective abstinence is the only proven way to escape the social diseases associated with this activity, including enraged editors, apathetic writing partners and an increase in the frequency of rejection slips. I am worth the editing time.

Even though studies find that the pledge is not always effective, it has been shown to discourage the overuse of adjectives (at least for me and Mark Twain).

Happy writing!

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