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  • Writer's pictureConstance Roberts

Adjectives Are NOT Your Friend

The absolute best writing advice I ever got came from one of my creative writing teachers in college. I'm kicking myself because I can't recall his name, but what I do remember about him (besides his long white ponytail) is his ability to drop knowledge on his students like a two by four.

One day in his poetry class, he asked us, "What is the most important part of the sentence?"

I tried not to roll my eyes as Macy Zeigler's hand shot up in the air. Of course she knows the answer. She's the best writer here and she's always so insightful. And pretty. And perky. (Someone clearly had self esteem issues back then.)

Macy took a deep breath and smoothed her perfect cocoa colored hair before she bestowed us with her answer. "I think the most important part of a sentence would be the adjectives. When you're writing, adjectives really help paint the picture in the reader's mind." She ended with a pressed smile.

The class murmured and nodded in agreement. I sank down in my seat and picked at my nail polish while I waited for our instructor to sing her praises.

"No." He shot her down. "A good guess, but you're wrong."

Suddenly my chipped cherry polish was way less interesting. I wish we'd had better camera phones back then so I could have captured the look on her face when dismissed her answer with a wave of his hand.

The instructor went on. "What's really going to hook your reader in a sentence isn't going to be words describing nouns, but rather, the verbs. Verbs will tell more of a story than adjectives ever will."

This tidbit of advice changed my writing forever and honestly was worth the ticket price of my degree: Put more focus on the verbs in your sentence rather than the adjectives.

Now I know what we were all taught in writing 101. Pretty adjectives are your friends. They make things exciting and stand out like brand new yellow highlighter. But adjectives take up a lot of words/space, and when you use too many, it has the same effect of highlighting an entire section in your science book. If everything is special, then nothing is special. Think about it:

adjective/adverb vs. verb

Ex 1.) Lysandra got up briskly and ran to the shaking door.

Lysandra sprang up to answer the fist pounding on the door.

"Got up briskly" can easily be replaced with just one word "sprang". And it's just, if not more, effective of describing Lysandra's frightened state. Also, the "fist pounding" better illustrates why Lysandra is frightened, rather than the unclear image of a "shaking door".

Ex 2.) Devin happily walked all the way home.

Devin whistled all the way home.

With just one verb we were able to replace two words, "happily walked", with one chunkier word that gets the point across much better. In the first sentence we are told Devin is happy. But in the second sentence, we are shown it because he is whistling and usually people who are whistling are happy and carefree.

So, what did we learn? Less is more. Show, don't tell. In other words, use adjectives/adverbs sparingly and focus on the finding the perfect verbs to show what your characters are doing. (Bonus: this concept can also work for nouns as well. "The water was cold." vs. "The water froze my tongue.")

Oh, and if you're wondering about Macy Zeigler, I honestly don't even remember if that was her real name. But she truly was talented and had a gift for flair. I'm sure by now she's on some bestseller list somewhere.

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