The Power Of Description: Part Four (Misuse)

>> Thursday, May 6, 2010

So, if adjectives and adverbs are so great, why do so many writing books and mentors tell you to go back and cull?

Well, because misuse of adjectives and adverbs is rampant among amateur writers. Too many (not all) amateur writers do not work on honing their craft, understanding the language, appreciating the nuances. As with any work of art, there are at least three key elements. (1) technical skill, (2) Inspiration/talent and (3) the quality of the material you're using. I'm not saying an incredible artistic genius can't make something timeless with newsprint and crayons, but it takes a great deal more work.

Understanding one's language, for writing, is key to both 1 and 3. You have to be supremely talented (or inordinately lucky) to make it on 2 alone. In my opinion.

So, here are some problems with misusing adjectives and adverbs, the kind of things that make editors and readers slap their heads or, worse, close the book.

Too many adjectives.

Hugo von Thirdenburg rode swiftly over the rolling verdant hills of endless carefully tended succulent spring grass, soft and freshly mowed, a deep emerald green in the warm golden glow of the sun.
Ouch! Aside from the redundancy (which we have in abundance), what have we really said? Hugo's riding over a nice lawn. And, truthfully, what does that really tell us about the story? How does it help us? We don't know why he's riding, whether he's riding swiftly to exercise his horse or because of urgency and, since we don't even know if the lawns are his, it's hard to tell if their state is important. It can help set the scene, but we don't need all this and there are other ways, using far fewer words, to tell us much more.

Hugo von Thirdenburg thundered over his pristine lawn, heedless of the damage left in his horse's wake.
Ah. In just over half the number of words, we know more about Hugo. He's still riding over a nice lawn (succinctly yet exhaustively described as "pristine"), but we know he's well enough to do to have gardeners handle their care and, either too self-important to care about the damage done with his riding or inflicted with an urgency. This sentence also has an urgency lacking in the meandering of the first.

Great description lies not in the number of adjectives, but how well they convey the meaning intended. If you want to describe the Thirdenburg estate, do so, but use only what adds to the meaning. But, if something important's happening, don't lose focus to add detail that will not enhance the story.

Using adverbs instead of speaking verbs/adjectives.

An adverb can be quite a fine addition to a sentence, but it often becomes a prop to allow for unimaginative verbs or adjectives. Strong speaking verbs can add considerable power and make the needs or action far more immediate.

Hugo rode swiftly vs. thundered.
Lance stared longingly vs. thirsted.
Violet was becoming desperately hot vs. grew feverish vs. wilted.
Margot said furiously vs. hissed.*
Malcolm shouted furiously vs. raged.
Kada swung her sword forcefully vs. sliced.

This is particularly important during action where clean writing is essential, especially if the action individual is also the POV. A bystander might note the beauty of the glimmering arc of a sword before decapitation, but the actual swordsperson is probably too busy to worry about stuff like that.

Using the wrong damn word.

If I knew how, this heading would be flashing, too. This is one of my all time biggest pet peeves and will turn me off a writer almost instantly. I call it the thesaurus syndrome and, far too often, I'm convinced a writer looks for impressive-sounding alternatives to a word without a real understanding of the nuances of his synonym. Vermilion, ruby, maroon, puce, scarlet, crimson, garnet, and burgundy are all reds, but not the same shade of red. They are specific reds or families of reds. For instance, burgundy and vermilion should not be used interchangeably. (Vermilion, in fact, is a particular shade of ink that only the Chinese Emperor was allowed to use, bright or orange red) In fact, even describing blood as scarlet or maroon is significant (arterial vs. venous). Don't use the words if you don't know which one you want (or which shade of red a term denotes).

This is not just true of adjectives and adverbs, of course, but they are among the most readily misused this way. (For Heaven's sake, folks, ogle has a specific definition. If you don't know what it means, don't use it. It is a synonym for "look" only in the loosest sense.)

Know what your words mean. Describing a simple barmaid as pale and ruddy is not only confusing, it's a good way to advertise one doesn't know what ruddy means (red). A man might be old, but his features aren't grizzled - grizzled means gray-haired, so only the man or his hair can be grizzled. Let the features seamed or wrinkled or worn or lined. They seem like small things, small differences, but they suck the power of these specific little words, skew the meaning, and muddy the picture instead of painting it.

If you don't know what the word means, don't use it.

Not that I'm opinionated or anything.

*"Saidisms", using other words instead of just "he said" or "she said" during dialog is frowned on by quite a faction. I am not one of them. The "saidisms" and bits of actions interspersed through dialog (and I'm a dialog-heavy author) keep it moving and give visual clues. The right "said" verb (and/or actions) can add the inflection you can't write into the words themselves. So, I'm not in that camp.


  • Project Savior

    Just to get into the "Saidisms". There was a while 80s when said was considered bad. Writers were taught during this time to avoid using that word. Now the trend is the opposite.
    Personally I think if you have too much "he said" and "she said" you run the risk of "floating head syndrome" where the reader is just hearing voices. On the other end of the extreme (stuff I saw a lot in the 80s) is the characters get a full work-out in order to have a conversation.
    I've been using a basic rule of thumb, I move the characters along while they are talking, but if there is nothing for them to do I use "said" it's trying to hit the right balance.

  • The Mother

    Certainly, the use of non-said can be annoying, but it is perfecly acceptable to use more descriptive words in more exciting situations.

    Not to be picky, but blood color only varies in syringes and on autopsy tables. Venous blood exposed to oxygen becomes immediately oxygenated.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I stand corrected (though, technically, it could be in a syringe or autopsy table). :)

  • Stephanie Barr

    Actually, now I think of it, it still matters because people might use the purply-red colors to describe the spilled blood, or the bright red colors to describe blood in a blood bag.

    In the end, the point is to know your facts (better than I did, for instance, on blood and air) if you're going to be specific or, if you don't, to keep it general.

  • Jeff King

    I find myself using the wrong word all the time... I hope to correct them all, but my intellect fails me at times and my ability falls short more than I care to admit. All in all I am a limited writer with a limited understanding of the nuances of the written word. One day I hope to rise above it, but for now I live with my short comings...

  • Stephanie Barr

    It's not that I'm out to attack anyone, Jeff, but I have particularly noted this "not the right word" in published works. If you've gone through that many layers without fixing this, the problem is systemic.

    And I was going to mention, Project Savior and The Mother, the I understand "said" replacements can get out of hand (note, for instance, Barbara Cartland's tendency to use the word "ejaculated" when someone says something in a startled way. Once every book or so, maybe, but four or five times a book and people start to think there's something wrong with you.)

  • Jeff King

    I was just admitting my faults... I agree with your post, it is a bad sign if a writer can't use the right terminology after so many edits to their manuscript.
    I didn't feel like you were attacking anyone.

  • The Mother

    I think I would avoid "ejaculated" as a said-replacement.

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