The Place Of Adjectives In Prose

Adjectives receive a fair amount of discrimination from writing instructors. Sol Stein, author of Stein On Writing, has a great deal to say on the subject. In fact, he created a little writing math formula for adjectives: one plus one equals a half. Here’s his explanation:

Experience proves that when two adjectives are used, eliminating either strengthens the text. The more concrete adjective is the one to keep. Or the one that makes the image more visual (p. 200).

I’ll admit, when I first read Mr. Stein’s one-plus-one principle, I wasn’t sold, but the more experience I gained through critiquing manuscripts and then through editing, the more I understood the point. In writing, an author is creating an image for a reader to focus on. When introducing a character or place, he might think more is better, but in fact, the more describers, the less the reader focuses.

The best approach is to identify the “telling detail” and focus on that aspect. Again from Mr. Stein:

In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer (p. 199).

As he explains, beginning writers often suffer from a tendency to write using generalities.

Example: A man walked into the room and sat next to a woman.

Everything in that sentence is bland. Nothing stirs the reader to envision the scene. To counter this generic writing, instructors prod beginners to be specific, but the inexperienced are apt to respond with too much detail “robbing the reader of one of the great pleasures of reading, exercising the imagination” (p. 186).

The answer is to find the detail that evokes the most emotion or imagination in the reader. Here’s an example Mr. Stein gives:

“The spoon left a line of froth on his sad mustache.” Without “sad,” the line is merely descriptive. With “sad” it characterizes both the person described and, by inference, the speaker (p.200).

Mr. Stein ends his section on adjectives by giving his “rules,” which he prefaced by saying, “Like any good rule, using one adjective in place of two has exceptions.” He then proceeds to give three guidelines for determining which adjectives to use and which to throw away.

1. Adjectives must be necessary. Without such an adjective, the sentence would be confusing or unclear. The salesman in the brown jacket is my uncle. Without the adjective “brown,” the sentence implies that none of the other characters is wearing a jacket. If that’s not the case, the adjective is needed.

2. Adjectives should be included if they incite curiosity. Jeffrey Overstreet’s novel, The Ale Boy’s Feast, utilized effective prose, including this line: “Any light, even the sickly glow of the sun’s cold coin over a world drained of colors, was better than the subterranean dark.” I think the adjectives in that line stir curiosity. What kind of a place is this when the sun is called a cold coin? Wow! Vivid and evocative!

3. Vivid is the third guideline for adjectives. The ones novelists use should be precise. They should call up an image that the reader can then expand upon in his imagination.

Mark Twain is reported to have said, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” He was wrong. Adjectives in toto aren’t the problem. It’s only the ones hanging with the herd or the bland ones that clutter the page without adding a splat of paint to the picture that need to be ruthlessly cut from our manuscripts. The particular ones — those are keepers.

– – – – –

This article is a reprint, with some minor editorial changes, of “Word Discrimination, Part 2” which first appeared here at Rewrite, Reword, Rework in May 2011.



Filed under Description, Word Use

18 responses to “The Place Of Adjectives In Prose

  1. Russ

    If one is describing a highly intense and life-threatening, dangerous scene, then the additional adjectives pump in energy and provide descriptive scope. If one is describing an intense, life-threatening scene, then the absence of the additional adjectives weaken the description’s power. Clarification: There is such a thing as high intensity and low intensity, and not all life-threatening scenes are inherently dangerous. Climbing a mountain side is always life threatening, but with the right equipment and climber’s skill, not always foolishly dangerous. I’m opposed to these kind of dogmatic, all inclusive writing formulas. Context is key. My opinion.

    My favorite is “voice.” Writing instructors, most of them, always tout this as so very important. But if you ask one to describe or define it, they will admit to not knowing what it means. There is a place for writing instruction, but the context of what one is writing about thumps dogmatic rules. But, yes, there is such a thing as adjective overkill, but to be dogmatic about it can kill good description(s). A prime example of the above is the writing of American author Thomas Wolfe, who took a beating for agreeing with me, after first being praised for his descriptive power. Go figure. This is a subjective art form, and rules that confine and strangle the art are best approached with caution. My opinion.

  2. Russ, as I mentioned in the article, Stein himself says there are exceptions to his “rule,” which actually is no rule at all, but a bit of wisdom from an experienced writer. I’ve seen precisely what he means in any number of manuscripts. The more a writer may try to describe a room or a person, the less clearly a reader can “see” the place or the individual. Why? Because there’s too much for the mind to focus on and extrapolate from to create an imagined room or person.

    I have to say, I disagree with you about using more description in a “highly intense and life-threatening, dangerous scene.” According to author Brandilyn Collins, in scenes like this a writer should be especially brief, almost terse, in order to dictate the pace. Passages with lengthy description do just the opposite. They slow the pace, which in turn reduces the tension and detracts from the urgency of the situation.

    I’ve read manuscripts and books with the lengthy kind of detailed reporting or reflective internal monologue, and what I’m tempted to do is skip all the wordy description to find out what happened!

    Finding the “telling detail” may be harder than gushing with extravagant description, but I think it’s far more effective.

    BTW, many authors of different eras wrote with more description than our contemporary style. Some, myself included, think today’s print fiction has been influenced by visual fiction. Readers now want a greater immediacy and simply aren’t as patient as those in the twentieth century.

    You’re right that voice is important, but I’ve read, and even written, articles on what constitutes voice (e.g. “A Character’s Voice”). It’s not really an unknown or unquantifiable entity at all.


  3. Russ

    You write that Stein says there are exceptions to his rule but it’s no rule at all. So it’s a rule but it’s not a rule? It’s only a “sometimes” rule? Well, who decides when and where the “sometimes” occurs in the story? Is it the critic or is it the writer? The amount of description (including powerful adjectives) in any scene depends on context, which is the main point of my previous comment. I’m going to provide an example you write, in a moment. What exactly is happening in the story? Example: If a car is bearing down on a man in a crosswalk, and he’s unaware of it, then there is no problem setting up that scene with a long description. Why is the man in the crosswalk at that moment? Why doesn’t he notice the car? Is he anguished because his girlfriend just dumped him, and on the same day he lost his job? Well, then, a bit of physiological description is going to be needed to set up this harrowing, dangerous scene. Is the inclusion of “dangerous” too much for you? Again, I’m going to provide your own example of this very thing, later. So the car scene might involve a few adjectives. It might involve a good number of adjectives. So adjectives, in my mind, are not the defining issue. It’s the context of what is going on in the scene. So I think we are talking past each other, and disagreeing about the number of adjectives as defined by descriptive scope, and not defined as dogmatically counting beans That’s OK.

    I tend to agree with most of your points about voice, and I think the misunderstanding comes from defining or explaining the entirety of the author’s voice throughout the story, and not just a character’s specific voice. No need to elaborate more, except to say that I didn’t care for the character’s dog jive, and see him as a boring punk, and wouldn’t care to read anything else that comes out of his mouth. Lol.

    Finally: I think you have proven one of my points in a sentence your wrote. “Agents agree: the single most important factor in getting their attention is a strong, unique, and personality-heavy narrative voice.”

    Or: “Agents agree: the most important factor in getting their attention is a strong, narrative voice.” Could in be that you used the “additional” descriptive words because it provided more descriptive scope? Apparently, you are not concerned that the longer description is too much for the poor reader to sift through. I think one should give the reader some credit. You do in this sentence, yes?

    One more time: In the end, word selection and the amount of it depends on the context of the message, and how important it is for the writer to get across his full meaning, as in your quoted sentence, above. You were trying to pump in energy and provide descriptive scope, which was the major point I made previously. Thus, you have made the point you are arguing against – in this case. There is room for disagreement on this issue, as in all subjective art forms. I think we might come to agreement, depending on what the context requires. Merry Christmas.

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  5. Russ, I don’t know a writing instructor who says there are fiction rules (different from grammar rules, by the way) except for this: if it works, it’s right. And what works? What readers will read and enjoy and want more of. Consequently, the books people 50 years ago read and enjoyed and want more of were laden with description. The books today are not.

    That’s just a fact—that may have some exceptions. Most likely, if you pick up books on the NY Times best-selling list today, they will have description embedded within action scenes, and they will include telling details, not lists of adjectives.

    I’ll be honest, Russ. I have to fight my tendency to layer in adjectives, so that you found a sentence in which I used multiple adjectives does not surprise me. Could I have written that sentence better? Undoubtedly. I would not have chosen “strong” as the adjective that gave a telling detail, however. I consider “strong” as fairly weak because it is somewhat generic. An adjective can be strong but so can a bull or the gravitational pull of the moon. It doesn’t contribute enough to the sentence and would certainly not be the key adjective.

    That being said, I don’t know how much fiction techniques apply to non-fiction. Some, I know, and more today than twenty years ago. But the thing is, there is no action that non-fiction description is slowing. There is no concrete image that will be muddled by multiple adjectives.

    As to your crosswalk-about-to-be-hit-by-a-car scenario, so much depends on the point of view in the story. I’d think if the scene is in close third, that the reason the protagonist is in the crosswalk would already be clear. I don’t see anything to be gained by a description of the store across the street or the angst he felt about his relationship issues—not if what’s happening is that a car is baring down on him.

    Now if the author wanted to show that him being struck by the car was his fault because he was distracted, then, OK, the internal monologue would be important, but that’s not description. That’s internal monologue and part of the scene.

    I guess I don’t understand what you’re arguing for, Russ. You think Sol Stein is wrong and that more adjectives are better?

    I don’t think there’s a “better” to be found in this. The issue is more, what’s popular today, what works for the contemporary reader who has grown up with visual media. I don’t think there’s any doubt that novel writing has been influenced by screenplays, from story structure to scene development to sentence construction. Readers, it would seem, want a faster pace in novels; they want enough description that enables them to imagine a world, but they don’t want every detail sketched out for them.

    If you want to write in a different way, of course you can (no rules!) But understand you’ll be going against today’s common trend.


  6. Russ.

    I happened to be sitting here when your message came. Of course, Rebecca, as I mentioned before, one can overdo the use of adjectives, but I’m not as opposed to using them when the context calls for it. I’ve always been attracted to what is considered “poetic” prose, and if it calls for another adjective, I don’t get my underwear tied in a knot. I say this in some jest because many of my journalism buddies do. Let me provide a sentence example and hear what you have to say. I would really like to hear your opinion. It comes from a short story of mine, published some years ago.

    “It was all unexpected and serious and surreal, and filled me with staggering disbelief.”

    I left it the way it appears above, although I received some criticism from friends who wanted it to read:

    “It was all unexpected and surreal and filled me with staggering disbelief.”

    The point they were making is that the additional word “serious” was too much. In other words, too much description. I thought to myself, “OK, maybe a good point, but so what. You see, by taking out “serious” the sentence loses some of it’s poetic sound. Repeat it to yourself, out loud, and get a feel for how it rings in your ear. I think you might agree with me that it is more poetically impactful. Perhaps not. By the way, the magazine’s editor did not mention it. So there’s my point, things like this are subjective. In conclusion, I think that critics can sometimes hurt more than help, and can get pretty silly about things. Happy new year.

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  9. I would never use ”sad moustache” . How is a moustache sad? It isn’t. Ever. And Stein’s example, especially in light of his claim to try to use words for their precise meaning, makes this example look a bit silly.

  10. Russ

    Gee, Rebecca, if today’s common trend was my only measuring stick, then I might never write a single sentence. Beyond a career as a print journalist, I’ve had six short stories published, and now have an agent trying to sell my fiction novel. I’m not happy with her progress, or her efforts, but that’s for another day.

    Let me express to you how I have come to view this subject of criticism. Let me use Thomas Wolfe as an example, because I used him already. During his lifetime, multiple respected critics, including William Faulker, compared him to Walt Whitman and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Later, concerning the very same work, Faulker decided he wrote “like an elephant trying to do the hoochie-choochie.” What? How in the world does one go from being compared to Whitman and Fitzgerald, and then be called an elephant doing the hoochie-choochie, by the same man? Appalling.

    I could go on, but this business is completely subjective in nature, given that the writer has the basic skills necessary. I make up my own mind, and don’t let any other critic or reader influence my judgment or opinion. Yes, adjectives can be overused, but as a writer I will be the one who ultimately decides when and how to use them. The critic be damned – hopefully not for eternity.

    Finally: Arkenaten disagrees with “sad mustache,” I don’t I can imagine perfectly well how one might describe a mustache in such a way. There your go, a subjective art form. It is always fun and interesting to discuss literature. Happy new year.

  11. Russ, I suppose “poetic prose” is another way of saying literary. I think novelists who want to sell “commercial fiction” (in other words, who want to sell!) can also use powerful description, but it isn’t going to look the same as what Dickens wrote or any of the classics or the writers from fifty years ago.

    Your sentence is really hard to judge out of context. The main reason I like your original is because of the rhythm to the sentence. And sometimes the rhythm is more important than the visual image you’re trying to create. It’s a judgment call, something the writer needs to do in conjunction with his editor.

    So, yes, certainly writing is subjective. If we all wrote in the same style and had the identical voice, stories would become boring! Writing is not like baking a cake—add ingredient A, but not too much, to ingredients N and V and out comes amazing prose and wonderful stories.

    Still, it’s good to be aware that more times than not, less is more when it comes to adjectives.


  12. Ark, a lot of fiction is allusion and depending on imagery to create, not just an imagined person or thing, but a mood. So of course a mustache can’t be sad. But it is evocative. If we let them, the words can conjure up a mental picture that is far more powerful than “thin mustache” or “drooping mustache.” The emotive word identifies the response the character elicits from others, and his mustache is the detail that carries that message, to other characters in the story, but also to readers. Rather than silly, the example does precisely what Stein wanted it to do. That doesn’t mean that every adjective has to be abstract or emotive. It’s just fine to use adjectives to create a visual impression.


  13. Russ, you said the key thing here—art form. Yes, writing fiction is an art form and as such, people will like different things. But if you want to sell your stories, if you want people to read them, then I think it’s wise to learn how fiction has changed in the last decade or so. As I may have said elsewhere, novels are under the influence of visual media. Writing instructors teach the same story structure, for example, to screenwriters and to novelists.

    Is this good? It simply is, but it also is what people are becoming used to.

    Example: For whatever reason, I recommended The Octopus by Frank Norris to a friend of mine. This is a novel I read in high school and about which I wrote a term paper. The book and the historical underpinnings made a real impression on me. My friend, who is a decade older than I am, and familiar with the classics, read the book, but when she returned it, she commented about how she has adjusted to the contemporary style of writing and found the book tedious in places because of the description.

    The majority of readers, I think, will read description if it has a purpose, if they’re invested in the story, if they like the character, but if it seems pointless, redundant, bland, they’ll either skip the passages or put the book down—or worse: never buy the book in the first place.

    Of course it’s your choice to use or not use many adjectives, but understand that what you decide may affect the size of your reading audience.


  14. I understand perfectly what he was trying to do, but In context, especially as he made a point of stressing word precision , the use of this adjective is thus incongruous.

    ”A sad, little man with a drooping moustache”, for example, is just as effective.
    But each to his or her own, I guess.

  15. I guess I don’t understand the in congruency you see, Ark. I thought sad evoked a precise image. But you’re right—that isn’t the way every writer would want to describe the character. There’s no right and wrong about it—just the principle to look for the precise adjective that would describe the character the way you want.


  16. Sad does evoke an image but the phrase ”sad mustache” is nonsensical because there is no such thing as a sad mustache, any more than a ”happy beard” or ” a slightly bemused, but in the main, well-adjusted side-burn which experienced the occasional bout of minor depression”.
    The phrase is not describing the character but his facial hair.
    And based on Stein’s quote – ‘In addition to eliminating unnecessary words, I am focusing on using words for their precise meaning, which is the mark of a good writer’.

    ”Sad mustache” ?

  17. Ark, I guess “nonsensical” is in the eye of the beholder. As I mentioned before, this literary device is not attempting a literal rendering. It’s not trying to paint a picture of a sad mustache. That you don’t like it is fine, but it certainly works as a figure of speech.

    But since you don’t care for it, pick whatever figure of speech you like better—maybe Carl Sandburg’s “Fog comes on little cat’s feet,” or the “tyrannous” storm or “All in a hot and copper sky, / The bloody Sun, at noon,” both in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” or “Life is a broken-winged bird” from Langston Hughes’s “Dreams.” The point is, a well-placed detail, a single adjective can express either a strong visual image or a metaphoric image more than can a spate of adjectives.

    I suspect Sol Stein would agree with whatever one you pick.


  18. Daphne (daphodill)

    Reblogged this on My Passion's Pen.

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