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.
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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.