When Two Adjectives Go Walking…

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve spent a fair bit of time this past week over at Critique Circle reading and commenting on various stories posted there. Of course this brings thoughts about improving one’s writing — which will now spill into this post.

I’ve posted my own story and gotten seven critiques. WONDERFUL! Being critiqued has been good for me. For one thing, I’ve had to go back to grammar books and other published authors to study up on the acceptable use of commas. Tricky little things. When it comes to separating clauses, there seems to be no uniform rule of, “Yes, one here,” or “No, none there.”

One of the things I often note in my critiques is the overuse and/or duplication of adjectives. Some genres tolerate more descriptive adjectives than others, but I do like the advice I once heard from some well known writer:
“Imagine you’re buying your story words for $1 each. You won’t want to buy more than you need.”

If you had to pay for words, you’d want to make sure each word is doing its job. You won’t want to pay for a bunch that need others to lean against because they don’t say enough on their own.

Mark Twain: “When you see an adjective, kill it.”

I’ve modified this bloodthirsty ink-thirsty version and adopted this maxim:
“When two adjectives go walking, flatten one.”
A little less gruesome, don’t you think?

Last year my husband enrolled in the Jerry Jenkins School of Writing and we both benefited from his lessons on “Becoming a Ferocious Self-Editor.” He gives demonstrations along with explanations, taking the first page of someone’s story and hacking it to pieces showing how it can be tightened.

When it comes to adjectives, he quotes another writing guru — sorry, I forget who — saying: “One plus one equals one-half.”
The idea being: when you use two adjectives, you weaken the effectiveness of both. Choose the most powerful and cut the other.

For example: The neat, tidy little cottage sat at the edge of a tenebrous, spooky forest.
I’d go with tidy, which means neat. A cottage is automatically little, so cut that, too.
Tenebrous means dark or murky — and dark murky places usually are spooky. Spooky places are usually dark and shadowy. Pick one or the other — preferably the one most people will understand.

Tom was a pompous, dictatorial boss who loved nothing better than ordering his cowering underlings around.
Dictatorial means ordering others around. Don’t throw this word away, though. Chances are, it will fit in nicely elsewhere.

Raiva was a loquacious chatterbox, always running on at the mouth.”
Here you have not only and adjective repeating the noun, but an adverb clause saying the same thing.
I’ve cut loquacious. Erudites like big, fancy words but the average reader may get a bit (cut qualifiers, too) ticked off if they have to stop and look up loquacious in the dictionary. A few fancies may be okay, but don’t make a practice of throwing in humongous, supposedly-impressive words.

I just read a piece which included the word pulchritudinous. My first thought was “ornery” but I decided to look it up and be sure. According to vocabulary.com:
“Even though it looks (and sounds) like it would describe a disease or a bad attitude, pulchritudinous actually describes a person of breathtaking, heartbreaking…beauty.”

Most readers will guess. They’ll read “Joe had a contentious nature.” And they’ll think, hmm… Sounds like content. Must be Joe’s easy-going.” If you do use an unusual word, give the reader a clue in the context.

But I digress. Let’s get back to Raiva the blab. Cutting the excess, all we have left is, She was a chatterbox. Or, Raiva was always running off at the mouth.

Instead of telling this fact, we could show it like so:
Pam and Bev sat in Bev’s living room drinking coffee when they saw Raiva coming to the door.
Pam nudged Bev’s arm and said, “Here comes Miss Mouthpiece.”
Bev rolled her eyes. “Gossip, her specialty.”
(Or, “Advice her specialty,” depending on which impression you want to convey. And check if it needs a comma after Advice. Or not?)

9 thoughts on “When Two Adjectives Go Walking…

  1. This piece took me right back to my English classroom, where I did my best to help my students clean up their writing. They didn’t always understand why I preached,”Keep your writing clean, understandable, and concise. More is not better when less will do.”

    So one morning I wrote on the board: “Continuously strive to make your writing uncluttered, clear, clean of too many unnecessary words and phrases. Avoid and stay away from excessive use of descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs. Illustrate your point by using strong, action-producing verbs. Strong verbs do not need or require descriptive words such as adverbs and adjectives, which tend to clutter your work and take the reader’s attention somewhere else. Make sure your readers do not require a dictionary to understand your words. It is wonderful to have a rich, full vocabulary, but your readers do not all share your enthusiasm. If you’re going to use unfamiliar words, make sure you find a way to define them in the context of your writing. Do your best to use only what is needed, and don’t clutter your pages with extra words that only serve to distract.” (or something along those lines–it’s been a long time ago!)

    They finally got the point. One bright lad said, “Hey, Mrs. K, didn’t you just break your own rule?”


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment. Ah, yes — try and impress it on young minds why they have to learn all this garbage. And if they are enthused, you have to keep them from going overboard with the thesaurus. You had a good way of making your point.
      One wannabe writer posted a short story, over 450 words, as one long paragraph. I didn’t even start — and neither did anyone else. 😦 For the most part, though, I’m really enjoying this new pursuit — though it’s seriously cutting into my book-reading time. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was my least favorite thing to do when I was teaching. I would not be a good editor–not critical enough. Except for my own work, which I tend to edit as I write. Makes it slow work. I need to learn to just let it flow, and edit afterward 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the helpful post. Despite being a multi-lingual person, I struggle everyday to do away with the redundancies in my write ups. Probably, reaping the result of ignorance during schooling.

    Wait! Did I blame my schooling again? Meh! This age or the other, learning never stops, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, learning never stops. 🙂
      Worse yet, I found when I submitted my story that other critique-writers were finding the same mistakes I’ve been pointing out in other writers’ works. (Blush) so even when you know all the rules, you still see a lot more clearly where they’re being broken by someone else. 😉
      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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