Adjectives.

May 28, 2019
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How do you diceide which adjectives to use and which to keep.or bin?

I know the general rule is that you.should use them sparingly. But removing all seems to me to make your writing very flat.

Any thoughts?
 

lynnmosher

Moderator
Staff member
Feb 21, 2007
23,325
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Oh, yes! Removing them all does make the writing flat. I don't know that there's a correct answer to your question. I think it depends on the writing and the writer. However, having said that, we don't want to overuse them either.
 

Accord64

Write well, edit often.
Oct 8, 2012
2,659
1,042
Gratuitous use of lavish adjectives can certainly add to the buoyantcy of a lively scene. 🤪

On the other end of the spectrum, you can go full Stephen King: "The road to hell is paved with adjectives.” 😈

I think the truth lies somewhere in between. The challenge is to find out exactly where for your writing.
 
Last edited:
May 28, 2019
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Great article @Rachael Jack.

I like the way the writer balances the use of against the need to avoid. I suspect the art of discernment when to use adjectives and adverbs is the trick I need to learn.
 
Oct 27, 2021
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Right!?! I actually had an editor look at my first 5 pages, and she commented that I didn't set the scene. She said I needed to describe the setting the characters were in. It was hard for her to picture where the two characters were. Is that important to the story? For some readers, absolutely. For others, probably not.

So you're right. I think discretion is needed. There needs to be a balance. As a reader I don't need an author describe every blade of grass and the various green colors in said grass, but a little bit helps a reader picture the scene or the character better in their mind.

I've only been seriously writing for a few years, so I have a lot to learn still, and this is just a novices opinion.
 
Jul 15, 2016
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My advice as a publisher is for you to self-publish. The problem isn't your writing--it's the people editing it and the publishers. So, just take your manuscript and run with it!
 
Apr 5, 2019
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The way I see it, your job as a writer is to:
  • Help paint a picture in the mind of the reader,
  • Tell a story,
  • Keep the reader from being bored or confused.
You use anything that ticks off all three items on that list. This includes adjectives.

I am a horror buff. The last Steven King novel I read was Dreamcatcher, and I - literally - had to force myself to finish it. Maybe if he had used a few more adjectives, it might have been different? I dunno.

While I still don't completely know what I'm doing per se, I've concluded that many of the established "rules" for writing are pure bunk. "Rules" for what covers sell. "Rules" for how you start a book or a story. "Rules" for how that story gets written. Thus far, I've broken several supposed so-called rules and it hasn't really affected my book.

I use adjectives all of the time. I got, and still get, loads of compliments about the writing in THE REVENANT AND THE TOMB. And it's looking like THE WIZARD'S STONE is shaping up to be similar to my last book. I get (got?) lots of compliments for descriptiveness and immersion. That's what people want when they read your story.

If your gut is telling you the writing is flat, then it's flat. If adjectives give it heft, then use them. It's your story and your voice.
 

lynnmosher

Moderator
Staff member
Feb 21, 2007
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I retell biblical stories or write inspirational stories and use adjectives. Readers tell me quite often that they felt as if they were right there in the scene or could picture the scene in their minds. How could you describe a hero/heroine if you didn't describe how they looked or acted. If you just said they had eyes and hair, what kind of description would that be? If you had the shepherds at night, watching over their flock, how would you describe the scene? You would have to use adjectives. Leaving them out tells me nothing and it's not interesting. However, you don't want a bucketful of adjectives to overwhelm the scene. ;)
 
Apr 5, 2019
1,805
1,293
How do you diceide which adjectives to use and which to keep.or bin?

When you read through your book and start getting annoyed by constant explanations of mood and expressions, or when your beta reader mentions it, then you know you need to cut back on the adjectives.

Until then, in the rough, let your adjectives flow.

Though, by changing your style (voice) you can accomplish the same thing without using adjectives. For example:

"Steve was disgusted by the look and smell of crab."

can be written thus:

"Steve looked at the fragment of crab meat with a measure of disgust, repulsed by its appearance and aroma."

But, that is a stylistic change. While it works for me (I write Fantasy), it doesn't work elsewhere. And it's longer, which many editors don't seem to like either.
 

Claire Tucker

Copyeditor and Proofreader
Jan 26, 2018
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823
I like one of the closing comments of the article Rachel Jack shared:
Yet when nothing else can be gleaned but that someone is tall, pretty, old, young; or that their home is big, square, bright; or that someone’s wedding dress is cute, expensive, ivory, I’m not seeing details so much as a checklist.
When it comes to editing, I don't hate adjectives. Adverbs are okay, but if you can find a stronger verb that doesn't need the adverb and is suitable to the character's voice, then use the stronger verb. Here are some of the things I consider regarding adjectives when I'm editing:
  • What is the genre of the story?
    Certain genres require more modifiers than others. Some, like thrillers and suspense, will benefit if the writing is leaner (but please don't go overboard and delete every single adjective and adverb).
  • What is the tone of the scene?
    In high-tension moments (depending on the genre), I am more likely to suggest that authors delete adjectives and adverbs (as long as the scene itself is set well). This is purely because we read shorter sentences faster, so by making the sentences shorter we create an illusion that the pace is picking up. Again, though, this is very dependent on the genre and the type of high-tension scene. A regency romance will need descriptors in the climactic scenes, while a horror will not.
  • Are the descriptors creating checklists?
    If the descriptors are not adding to the scene in some way (even if it is only to help set the scene), then they are probably not needed.
  • How many are modifying one word?
    Unless the character's or writer's voice favors multiple descriptors for one word, I will suggest cutting the number of adjectives down to two.
Those are a few of the things I try to keep in mind, but most of the time I assess the modifiers and how many there are based on the scene, story, writer's voice and character's voice.

(I have put together a booklet that focuses on five things you can remove from your writing so that the story shines through. One of them is adjectives and adverbs, but I also look at where and when you might want to include those things. You can get the booklet free by subscribing to my email list. [I am not sure if posting this here is violating some rule; if it is, I am happy to remove this.])
 

Claire Tucker

Copyeditor and Proofreader
Jan 26, 2018
2,589
823
And it's longer, which many editors don't seem to like either.
It depends a lot on the context (and the genre, as you mentioned). The example you gave is fine, in my opinion. The reason editors will advise you to make the sentences shorter is because that helps with ease of reading. Shorter sentence = easily understood = more accessible for readers. But longer sentences do also have their place. The trick is knowing when to use which one.
 
May 28, 2019
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1,675
Thank you every one. There is some really helpful info and advice.

I agree about keeping sentences short for action scenes and not describing every single thing to the reader. So I guess - as I thought - it is a judgement call but the info/advice you have given has helped me sharpen up how I will be able to do that now.
 

Zee

Mar 1, 2019
3,817
1,438
My advice as a publisher is for you to self-publish. The problem isn't your writing--it's the people editing it and the publishers. So, just take your manuscript and run with it!
Yes, but don’t run too hard or too fast without help…the amount of lame stuff published would be significantly reduced if writers were serious both about seeking honest advice, and implementing what they receive.
 
Oct 27, 2021
35
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Yes, but don’t run too hard or too fast without help…the amount of lame stuff published would be significantly reduced if writers were serious both about seeking honest advice, and implementing what they receive.
I have a family friend who self published a book, and I gave him my honest opinion and critique in a tactful manner. Unfortunately, he did not take the critique well. Grammatically and historically he was on point, but the pace of the story was like watching the grass grow. It also was over 200k words long. Getting help is SO important!
 

Johne

Senior Member
Staff member
Sep 27, 2005
3,613
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"Steve was disgusted by the look and smell of crab."
I actually prefer this level of description because I've seen and smelled crab, and my reader's imagination can fill in the gaps. There are times to be expansive and times to be succinct.

For me, adjectives are like any seasoning - a little goes a long way. Without them, life is bland. Overdo it and it's too much. WIth a nod to Goldilocks and the three bears, the trick comes in getting it just right.
1674680848099.png
 

Zee

Mar 1, 2019
3,817
1,438
I don't think we have any worries on that front, @Zee. @Shamrock seems to solicit advice and she's serious about her writing.
Definitely! I meant in general, not @Shamrock specifically.

On the other hand, stories can be over as well as under-critiqued. To see how amazingly varied opinions of the same work can be, just spend a few minutes reading the five-star and one-star reviews (of the same book.) One man’s drivel is another man’s masterpiece…
 

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