Monday, January 9, 2012

Mentor Monday - Adjectives: Sticking to a Fair-Weather Friendship

So the kids gave me the book I wanted for Christmas: Judy Collins’ autobiographical Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.

I love Judy Collins and her music. I grew up during the folk song craze when television networks actually devoted weekly programming hours to shows that featured the likes of Judy, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, etc. So, I was prepared to love the book. Unfortunately, I forgot that being a writer makes me a pain-in-the-neck reader. The book is generally very well-written. The stories Judy shares about her life are as interesting as I’d hoped. But, I’m sometimes distracted in by her over-use of adjectives. Here’s an example:

“Outside my window, there was a small emerald lawn sheltered by a Russian olive tree whose pale lavender flowers gave off an exotic scent.”

I find such highly descriptive phrases tend to throw me out of the story. My mind does not briefly alight in that place described and use it as a springboard to the following sentence. Instead, I question why I have to know the lawn was emerald-colored instead of just small, and then I think that I’m not familiar with Russian olive trees and wonder what they look like (should I try Google Images?) then I begin to wonder what is meant by an exotic scent (boxwood-like? patchouli maybe?) and on it goes… I realize that I’m no longer in the story because I’ve been told too much about something of little consequence.

Those gods of the written word, Strunk & White, make a point of discouraging the overuse of adjectives. They state: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place…In general…it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.” (pp. 71-72, The Elements of Style)

William Zissner agrees: “Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. This is adjective-by-habit—a habit you should get rid of.” (pp. 70-71, On Writing Well)

Become a fair-weather friend of adjectives. Use them only on an as-needed basis. Make accurate nouns and verbs your BFFs. A lawn is a lawn is a lawn and unless it has been dried by drought or burned by a kid with a magnifying glass, we’re going to assume it is some shade of green. Does it matter if it is emerald or kelly or jade? Only if the color alters the story line. Does the smell of the tree’s flowers need to be described? Only if that scent returns later on to help a plot point. e.g. “The exotic scent of the blooming olive tree reminded Evan of the night he’d witnessed a murder in his own back yard.”

Often, writers get stuck in their elementary school writing lessons, when teachers explained how to make descriptions more accurate by using adjectives. But remember that in those days, your vocabulary was still limited. You know a lot more nouns and verbs than you did in the 3rd grade.

Use ‘em.


Diane Mayr said...

Excellent advice! Part of the problem is also a result of the word count required in school. I remember pumping up my writing with all manner of unnecessary words, just so I could stretch it out to meet a one or two page requirement.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Important post, Muriel. Very important!

And then, Diane, when you got to be a grown up writer, you had to unlearn all that padding, so you could come in on target for your publisher's word count requirements.