WE don’t necessarily have to campaign against adjectives—sometimes they work wonders—but we need to realize that adjectives aren’t the building blocks of a sentence. Nouns and verbs are. So whenever you write, do all you can to cross them out. Try losing the adjectives in your writing and you might surprise yourself. The fewer the adjectives, the leaner and clearer the sentence, especially with sentences that are already doing the hard and good work of showing.
Here’s an example taken from the tragic story of the Ugandan acid victim, Namale Allen, as told by Wong Kim Hoh on August 14, in his piece, Singapore Offering To Help Uganda Acid Victim:
An attacker flung a copious amount of acid on her, practically melting her face, chest, neck, shoulders and back.
Notice what happens when I delete the phrase “a copious amount of”:
An attacker flung acid on her, practically melting her face, chest, neck, shoulders and back.
The sentence still works, and it works even better. That her face and her entire upper body have become nothing but a melted mass of skin and flesh—made all the more horrific with accompany visuals of a pre- and post-attack photo—renders the description “copious amount” redundant.
The force of Mr. Wong’s sentence lies not so much in the adjective “copious,” but the verb “melting.” Which is our other lesson on adjectives: they tend to tell rather than show. It is verbs that do more of the showing than adjectives. It is also imagery that trumps adjectives when it comes to showing versus telling.
How could we then transform the opening scene of Mr. Wong’s piece with some imagery? Here’s his version:
One evening in May last year, Ms Namale Allen was at her home in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, when she heard a male voice asking her to go outside.
Then five months pregnant, the 26-year-old hairdresser went to check who it was, carrying her four-year-old daughter on her hip.
What happened next turned her life into a nightmare. An attacker flung a copious amount of acid on her, practically melting her face, chest, neck, shoulders and back. Her daughter also suffered burns but not as severely.
Both Ms Allen and the baby she was carrying survived. But her disfigurements were horrifying. Her nose had collapsed and she is now blind. What were once her eyes are now two pin-sized holes from which tears would flow. (132)
And here’s ours:
It all wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t opened her front door that evening in May last year, after she heard a man beckoning her to go outside.
Ms Namale Allen, a 26-year-old hairdresser, then five months pregnant, would have been safe at home, in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda.
But she opened the door, while carrying her four-year-old daughter on her hip.
That was when a splash of liquid fire greeted her. It practically melted her face, chest, neck, shoulders and back, leaving her horribly disfigured. Her nose had collapsed, and what were once her eyes are now two pin-sized holes from which tears would flow.
Her daughter suffered burns but not as severely, and the baby she carried survived. (127)
Through the imagery “a splash of liquid fire,” we managed to convey a “copious amount” of acid (“splash”) and a scorching devastation (“liquid fire”). And the verb “greet” personifies the “liquid fire,” rendering the scene more dramatic, cruel even. Notice too that we’ve framed the line in the active voice, as opposed to a weaker passive version: That was when she was greeted by a splash of liquid fire.
In rewording and recasting the opening scene with a subjunctive tone (“wouldn’t have happened” and “would have been safe”), we have captured the poignant drama behind this tragic, life-changing moment. This plays up much better than Mr. Wong’s inert, linear narrative which merely coughs up facts rather than work up the suspense and the sheer futility of perfect hindsight.
Notice how, in the fourth paragraph, we let her disfigurement take centerstage, rather than disrupt it with a detail on her daughter, as Mr. Wong had done. We’ve also killed the adjective “blind” and let that lone sentence carry all the weight of her blindness—the sentence Mr. Wong had written so beautifully: What were once her eyes are now two pin-sized holes from which tears would flow.
The intention here is not to lose the picture or break the momentum as the horrific details unfold. And so it makes sense that we’ve relegated information concerning her daughter and the baby she carried to an entirely different paragraph.
Lose the adjectives, dream up imagery, revise, rewrite, rearrange. Sounds simple enough: that sense of ease would surely come with patient, determined practice at editing and lots of reading—the sort of reading that doesn’t merely absorb facts, but celebrates the beauty of sentences.
We invite you to share your thoughts if you have other editorial suggestions, or write us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any curious, odd encounters with language you’d like us to feature and fix.
“Improve It!” offers insights on how to revise, rewrite, snip, edit, move words around for style, clarity, and conciseness. We take a short extract from an article, polish it, and show you how and why we made the changes we did.