Lose the Adjectives

THERE are hardly any writing tips I can remember from my school days, except the vaguely useful one pertaining to grammar (“Watch your grammar!”) and the other one that urged you to “describe more.”

If the latter advice sends you running to adjectives for help, it’s entirely normal. I did that as a student, and for a long time after that too. That’s because the phrase “describe more” has a way of triggering some kind of grammatical reflex—one that kicks your mind into thinking, “more adjectives.” While this might feel intuitively sound, it is technically unwise.

“Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs,” advises William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style and professor to E.B. White, the man who gave us Charlotte’s Web.

“Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can,” so said American author E.L. Doctorow and Russian writer Anton Chekov.

And from Stephen King, king of horror fiction, we learn how adjectives and modifiers can get in the way of crisp, lucid prose. Let’s check out one of his earliest attempts at writing in 1963 when he was a 16-year-old sports writer for a small-town weekly in Lisbon, Maine. Here’s a recollected excerpt he wrote about a high school basketball game in which a member of his school team broke the Lisbon High School scoring record:

Last night, in the well-loved gymnasium of Lisbon High School, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom, known as “Bullet” Bob for both his size and accuracy, scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his knight-like quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon thin-clads since 1953 …

His editor accepted the piece, but only after a few edits:

Last night, in the Lisbon High School gymnasium, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon’s basketball team since 1953 …

The moral of King’s story was this:

I had been writing first drafts of stories which might run 2,500 words. The second drafts were apt to run 3,300 words. Following that day, my 2,500-word first drafts became 2,200-word second drafts. And two years after that, I sold the first one.

For sure, his editor had pared the excerpt—from 81 to 66 words—but what got sliced exactly? Adjectives. Two, specifically:

well-loved gymnasium
knight-like quest

And a modifier too:

Bob Ransom, known as “Bullet” Bob for both his size and accuracy, scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed.

And that’s the other moral of the story:

Lose the adjectives.


You may also enjoy:
Sometimes, Adjectives Just Get in the Way
.. Be More Sentence-Savvy, Know Your Parts of Speech

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