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Et Tu, Adjectives?



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Fri Aug 10, 2007 9:18 pm
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Fand says...



I know you've had those moments. Inspiration strikes--and it strikes with a vengeance. You see colors, shapes, distance, body language, topography; you hear voices and fauna and natural phenomena; you smell and taste what's cooking in the restaurant across the street, and feel the pavement beneath your character\'s feet as if those shoes belonged to you. You want to share this brilliant vision, and no one blames you for that.

I know you've all had other moments, too--those where you're reading, and the author breaks into a detailed description of a house that had resembled your aunt's before, throwing off your mental images. Sure, now you can see what your author wanted, but the imagery was so much more vibrant before, when it was rooted in your own experiences.

Who's to blame? Whoever teaches us, way back when, that adjectives (and their first cousins, adverbs) are our best friends. Sure, they can help paint a scene--but if you overload your brush, to extend the metaphor, you're going to muck up all the colors and probably obscure a few lines.

This has always been one of my greatest pet peeves--and, appropriately, one of the things that frustrates me most about my own writing. The chapter on adjectives, and the exercises following it, that I found in Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile," were godsends.

Lukeman lists six reasons why adjective/adverb-heavy manuscripts generally don't work:

1. More is less. When a string of adjectives or adverbs is used, they detract from each other....

2. It can be demeaning to the reader when the writer fills in every detail for him... [and as] readers, we bring so many of our own associations to the table anyway, we're going to substitute our own picture... no matter how much effort a writer puts into describining it.

3. It is often preferable to leave things blank and force the reader to use his imagination--that way... [he] becomes more fully engaged in the manuscript. He won't set it down if it's his.

4. Writers who overuse adjectives and adverbs tend to use common ones... and the hackneyed result is immediately apparent.

5. Adjectives and adverbs often... weaken their subjects. It is as if the writer were saying... "This noun (or verb) is not strong enough to stand on its own...."

6. Finally, the overall effect of a text encumbered with adjectives, adverbs, and the inevitable commas in between makes for very slow, awkward reading...


Makes sense, non? Of course, even though I saw the sense in this, I was still at a loss as to how I could effectively get rid of the adjectives and adverbs that were weakening my prose, and retain the few that strengthen it. That's where Lukeman's suggested exercise for this chapter comes in handy.

- Remove every adjective and adverb from the first page of your manuscript and list them separately. How many are there? Now read the first page aloud (without the adjectives and adverbs). How does it read? Faster? Are your major ideas still conveyed without them?

- Look at your list of removed adjectives and adverbs. How many are commonplace or cliche? Cross out each one and beside it write down a less expected replacement. Now go back to your first page and insert your replacements. Read it aloud. How does it read now?

[Note from Fand: At this point I actually deviated from his suggestions and instead deleted a vast majority of these weakening adjectives, replacing the ones I'd come up with decent synonyms for.


He also suggests, in a subcategory, that you remove each verb from first page and think of more active, unusual, and vivid synonyms for each, and insert them. Be careful, when doing this, to keep not only denotations but also connotations in mind.

This seemed sensible, so I decided to try it. I'll use a paragraph from an old short story here as an example, and go through each of the steps.

Original:
Nora shifted, folding her legs more comfortably between her body and the wooden slats of the bench. A paperback edition of her favorite Austen lay open and facedown to her right, the cover flapping in the cool October breeze. As fascinating as the topsy-turvy love lives of the Dashwood sisters were, sometimes she preferred escaping her chronic escapism for a while. Instead, she watched as the autumn leaves were propelled sluggishly across the stones, and a golden-coated dog submitted wearily to the ministrations of an overzealous three-year-old; a beautiful young couple, not much older than Nora herself, kissed a few benches down on the other side of the path. Occasionally someone else would walk by the older gentleman in the blue coat, carrying an umbrella, smiled and nodded to her as he passed; a frowning teenage girl with black fingernails and bright red streaks in her hair didn't look up, but kicked an acorn, crossing the path when it moved in the wrong direction.



Blah. So, we put Lukeman's first exercise into effect. I\'ll skip the list of adjectives and adverbs--if you're on this site, hopefully you know what they are right now--and skip right to the version without them.

Sans Adjectives/Adverbs
Nora shifted, folding her legs between her body and the slats of the bench. A copy of Austen lay open and to her right, the cover flapping in the breeze. As as the love lives of the Dashwood sisters were, sometimes she preferred escaping her escapism for a while. Instead, she watched as the leaves were propelled across the stones, and a dog submitted to the ministrations of a three-year-old; a couple, not much older than Nora herself, kissed a few benches down on the other side of the path. Someone else would walk by the gentleman in the coat, carrying an umbrella, smiled and nodded to her as he passed; a teenage with fingernails and streaks in her hair didn't look up, but kicked an acorn, crossing the path when it moved in the direction.



This example shows us that it really is necessary to have some adjectives and adverbs--in places it sounds downright absurd (and/or unfinished) without them. So, I inserted a few better ones.

With Adjectives and Adverbs Replaced/Deleted
Nora shifted, tucking her legs between her body and the slats of the bench. A paperback edition of her favorite Austen lay open to her right, the cover fluttering in the October breeze. As fascinating as the love lives of the Dashwood sisters were, sometimes she enjoyed escaping her escapism for a while. Instead, she watched as the leaves were propelled across the stones, and a dog submitted wearily to the ministrations of a three-year-old; a young couple, not much older than Nora herself, kissed a few benches down on the other side of the path. Occasionally someone else would walk by the older gentleman in the blue coat smiled and nodded to her as he passed; a sullen girl with black fingernails and streaks in her hair didn't look up, but kicked an acorn, zigzagging across the path when it moved in the wrong direction.


Now, obviously, it's still not perfect--but it is a much stronger paragraph. And, as an added bonus, not only will this exercise help you strengthen your work, it will also give you a more coherent idea of what your style is, depending on how many adjectives and adverbs you choose to use, and what they are, etc.

So, there's your daily exercise. Try it out with a paragraph first to get the hang of it, then let loose! Let me know what you think, and if it does your writing any good. ^_^

Fand
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