Are You Addicted to Adjectives? Here’s How to Break the Habit

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When we first start writing, we learn the different parts of speech and how to use them. Adjectives were always my second favorite (verbs being first, of course). Unfortunately, like anything, even adjectives can be overused. Almost obsessively.

While descriptions are both effective and necessary in certain circumstances, too many of them can take away from the flow and readability of your story. With a little practice, you can learn to add color to your writing without super-saturating your prose with adjectives.

For the purpose of this post, we’ll use this sentence:

With the quiet owl perched on her aching shoulder, she finds herself shivering despite the mild, early spring air.

We have some work to do. Here’s where to start.

Break Your Sentence Into Smaller Pieces

As a writer, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a successful writing session. As the words start flowing, it’s hard to find a reason to hold back. When you do go back to revise your work, the easiest way to cut out the adjectives you don’t need is to dissect the sentences giving you the most trouble.

First, define the subjects of the sentence. In our example, the unnamed she is the subject. The owl on her shoulder might be important, but it doesn’t take any part in the action of the sentence. That comes next.

After picking out the subject, identify what the subject is doing. Our nameless character is shivering. Could we leave out the reason? We could. But if we want to weave that explanation into the rest of the sentence, we could isolate that portion into a third section—she shivers because she is cold.

Still, we’ve managed to determine which fragment of the sentence—the part attempting to explain the significance of the shivering—needs the most work. For now, we can leave the other two fragments alone.

Count Your Commas

I have nothing against Oxford commas. In journalism you tend to leave them out, but that’s a stylistic thing (you adapt to it). In some cases, Oxford commas are absolutely acceptable, even beneficial.

You can still go overboard with comma usage though, and because commas often separate a series of adjectives, counting how many you’re using is another way to determine whether or not you’re using too many describing words.

… she finds herself shivering despite the mild, early spring air.

There are to adjectives used here to describe the air, which is implied to be warm in comparison to recent temperatures. In this comparison, though, mild and early actually conflict one another. Mild climate would imply warm, but early spring tends to be cool, often chilly. Both adjectives together, separated by a comma, don’t seem to belong. In fact, they almost seem unnecessary.

Only Use Necessary Adjectives that Add to a Story

A little background might help you work through this last tip—information you would know if you were writing it. Pretend you’re the author. Let’s say She is traveling through a forest to a place she’s afraid of. Her only companion is an owl. It is the beginning April.

That’s all the info you get, because that is all the background knowledge that contributes in some way to the story this sentence wants so desperately to be a part of. Knowing what we know, let’s finally try to trim the sentence down, only keeping the adjectives we absolutely need.

Here’s the full sentence again:

With the quiet owl perched on her aching shoulder, she finds herself shivering despite the mild, early spring air.

We know there’s an owl on her shoulder. We also tend to think owls as naturally quiet animals (even their “hoot” isn’t all that startling). We can therefore take that adjective out. We also don’t necessarily need to include that her shoulder is aching. It’s likely, if she’s afraid, she is nervous, and might not notice the ailment at all.

With the owl perched on her shoulder, she finds herself shivering despite the mild, early spring air.

It’s not a huge cut, but it’s a significant one. Moving to the final part of the sentence, we come back to our final four words: mild, early spring air.

We know it’s April. We know she is shivering, ideally, because the air is still chilly. Think about this: could she be shivering for more than one reason? Could she also be shivering because of fear?

Maybe we don’t need to add anything about the cold at all.

If you still wanted to add something that implies the time of year, in theory you would move back to an earlier sentence and add something about new leaves growing on trees. This sentence, however, is much more powerful when you take out the extra adjectives tagged onto the end.

With the owl perched on her shoulder, she finds herself shivering.

This implies she could be shivering for multiple reasons—responses to both the temperature and the events soon to come; but you don’t need to say that. The more you leave for your reader to infer, the longer you hold their attention.

Give these tips a try. Break your habit. Making your descriptions part of your piece, instead of layering them on top like too much icing on an otherwise delicious word cake, can change the way your adjectives enhance the story from start to end.

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