Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fantastic, Cool, Totally-Awesome Adjectives

by Annette Lyon

Of late, my post topics have been drawn from recent reading or editing projects. Today is no different.

Today's topic: adjective abuse.

First, a background issue: Most writers are aware of the need to pull back on using -ly adverbs too much. For example, if a character yells, "You idiot!" you can assume he said so "angrily," but saying as much dilutes the effect. Adverbs tend to be the easy way out, because instead of finding a great way to show what's going on, the writer tells you.

Search through your document for adverbs and find better ways to show what's happening. But please, when you do that, for the love of Pete, don't start throwing in large doses of adjectives in the adverbs' places.

If someone is tired, you could describe their "red-rimmed eyes," but don't make it, "teary, stinging, red-rimmed eyes." Additional details do not always make a sentence stronger, and quite often they just detract. It's easy to get so caught up in the sensory stimuli that you're peppering every sentence with several adjectives. Trust me here: Your readers won't be nearly as enamored with your descriptive prowess as you are.

A recent manuscript I worked on is like that. Great writing overall. (Few adverbs, even . . .) But I don't think I ever came across an adjective riding solo. It was always a compound adjective (two adjectives working together) and at times three or even four adjectives in a string. Worse, sometimes the same sentence would describe two or three different things, and each one had two or three different descriptors, yielding a sentence with half a dozen (or more) adjectives!

Something along the lines of this (I made this sentence up, but it's demonstrative of the kind of thing I saw over and over again):

He looked up at the dark, gray, roiling clouds and stroked his short, brown beard with his long, slender, bony fingers.

Heaven help me.

The image gets so cluttered up with adjectives that we can't see the scene for what it is. Keep only the most relevant and powerful adjectives.

In the example above, you can probably take out dark and gray, since roiling clouds are probably not going to be white and fluffy, and roiling is far more powerful than the other two anyway. With the beard, decide which part is more important: that it's short or brown? Or can you show that it's short by how he strokes the brown beard (if the beard is long, he could tug it, but if it's short, he can rub the whiskers, perhaps). And the fingers? Any one of the adjectives (long, slender, or bony) would work (they provide similar images anyway), but all three are overkill.

Every single adjective should show something fresh and interesting. Any word not pulling its weight should be cut.

For the more technical side of things, here's how you should punctuate adjectives:

Compound adjectives (adjectives working together for one image) need to be hyphenated. Take this sentence:

She used a green based color scheme.

The two words acting together are "green" and "based," so the hyphen belongs there:

She used a green-based color scheme.

It's not a green, based-color scheme. That makes no sense.

The punctuation may sound like no big deal, but not putting the hyphen in there (and in the right place) can be confusing.

Take this sentence:

Her relaxed fit boot cut jeans stretched over the tops of her cowboy boots.

At first reading, that sentence can be monumentally confusing (Her fit boots? Cut jeans? What?). But add the hyphens in the correct places, and suddenly it's crystal clear:

Her relaxed-fit, boot-cut jeans fit over the tops of her cowboy boots.

On the flip side, if you're not using a compound adjective (which needs a hyphen) and instead have a series of adjectives (and please, don't do this often), combine them with a simple comma:

He parked his red, mid-size convertible out front.

Pare down your use of adjectives. Make the images you use powerful. And when you do drop in the occasional adjective, punctuate it correctly.

Your readers (and editor) will thank you.


Crystal Liechty said...

Sheesh, your brain is huge. Fortunately, I'm not a big abuser of the adjective.

Tara said...

Ages and weights? to hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question. For example: nineteen year old eighty pound girls

hyphens? comma? Help!

Annette Lyon said...

Crystal, My brain isn't huge--it's just obsessive. :)

Tara, Good question! I'll answer it in a future post where there's more room.

Rachelle said...

Loved your examples here! Thanks for the reminders.

Julie Wright said...

Amen lady! I edited a book like this recently too and have become hyper sensitive to it.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great info! I definitely "skim" over excessive adjectives when I read . . .