Got a great question last week...
I do wonder about adjectives. I generally try to avoid more than one per paragraph or thought, but is it okay to use more or should I work on cutting them out completely?Adjectives are those colorful words that are used to describe other not-so-colorful words. Green tree. Ugly baby. Soft, fluffy, white clouds. There are many great adjectives out there, and a whole lot of fantastic opportunities to use them. They usually add depth to otherwise boring sentences.
See what I did there? I loaded that paragraph with adjectives, and it reads clunky, doesn't it? Let's take a closer look:
Adjectives are those colorful words that are used to describe other not-so-colorful words. Green tree. Ugly baby. Soft, fluffy, white clouds. There are many great adjectives out there, and a whole lot of fantastic opportunities to use them. They usually add flair to otherwise dull sentences and bring them to life.That's a lot of adjectives. So let's get rid of them.
Adjectives are words that are used to describe words. Tree. Baby. Clouds. There are adjectives out there, and a lot of opportunities to use them. They usually add flair to sentences and bring them to life.Um...yeah, that's not going to work. Without some of those words, this paragraph makes no sense. We'd better add a few back in.
Adjectives are words that are used to describe other words. Green tree. Ugly baby. Soft, fluffy, white clouds. There are many adjectives out there, and a lot of opportunities to use them. They usually add flair to dull sentences and bring them to life.Much better.
By now, you probably see a little goes a long way when it comes to adjectives. They're an important part of writing and shouldn't be cut out entirely, but it's easy to over-describe a word same as you can over-describe a scene. Put in too many and they affect the flow of the text. Too few, and it's hard to understand what you mean.
Just like adverbs, there is no "use X many per X paragraphs" rule to go by here. But there are some things to think about how and where you use them.
1. Does the adjective tell the reader anything they didn't already know about the word?
Soft, fluffy, and white are all things every person asked would use to describe a cloud. That's like saying, "He dived into the wet water." If the adjective doesn't provide additional information than what the word itself conveys, you can probably cut it.
2. Does it provide judgment on the POV's part?
This is a good trick to see if you're the one telling the reader what something looks like or the POV describing it in their own words. How often do you walk outside and think, "Gee, look at those soft, fluffy, white clouds drifting gently across the sky." You more likely think, "pretty day" or something that fits your personality and the situation. My husband laughed at me this past week because I said the clouds looked like a fault line. Odd way to describe the sky, but the clouds did look just like a fault line. He's described them before as looking like a bad Photoshop cloning job. Can you tell I'm a writer and he's a photography buff?
3. Is there a reason to go into more detail?
Just describing something wastes opportunities. Adjectives can be used to set a mood, or evoke an emotion. If your protag just broke up with her boyfriend and is in a really foul mood, she might describe the sky as "stupid fluffy, white clouds all soft and cottony." The tone comes across completely different because of her mood. Or you might want to contrast something for dramatic effect, like seeing a bright pink hearse at a funeral.
4. Can you better show it through action?
Since adjectives describe other words, a precise noun or verb might work better. "A hard rain fell" could turn into "Rain pounded the windows." It's one aspect of show don't tell, really. Anything you're using to describe something else is by its nature telling. While that's not always a bad thing, it is one area you can check on if you're getting "it feels told" feedback.
5. How does it affect the rhythm of the sentence or paragraph?
Lots of adjectives in a row can start to feel list-like. "She was a tall, thin woman with flowing, curly blond hair and wide-set ice-blue eyes. Her dress swirled around her, dark royal blue, with small, round gold buttons along a narrow waistline." But an adjective in the right spot can add that extra beat that makes a line sing. "He was tall and dark, with eyes of sin and moonlight." You need the double beats at the end to balance the beginning. It wouldn't sound the same like: "He was tall, with eyes of sin and moonlight." All the music is gone.
Adjectives can be used in any number of ways, and using them depends a lot on your writing goal. If the only reason is to show what something looks like, it's probably a bad reason and the adjective doesn't need to be there. But if it adds tone or mood, helps the rhythm of the text, characterizes, shows judgment, provides and interesting contrast, etc. then it's probably the right word in the right place.