Writer’s Clinic: How NOT to use adjectives in a novel

Adjectives are a flavoursome tool in the writer’s arsenal, but too much flavour can make even the best dish unpalatable. AKA salty. Almost always, a stronger result can be achieved with better nouns and verbs.

To demonstrate, I’ve dug out a section from one of the first pieces I wrote. My laptop tells me I haven’t edited it since I was eighteen. And it shows. But, it’s a great example of how not to use adjectives, i.e. not all the time.

The wind whipped up the dry dust of the valley floor, spiralling down and coming to rest at the feet of the stranger.  Arid breezes tugged at his soiled cloak, making it twist and flap until it was gathered up in one long, bony hand.  A shadow crept across the desert floor, following the shapeless, hunched form as it made its way towards a collection of small, misshapen boulders.  The few trees that grew here were twisted and bent, their leafless trunks casting little shade.  The dark figure, however, shuffled straight to a warped specimen among the moss-covered rocks.  Something was already there.

Can you tell it’s a prologue?

Now, let’s dissect this, looking in particular at the adjectives I used:

The wind whipped up the dry dust of the valley floor, spiralling down and coming to rest at the feet of the stranger.  Arid breezes tugged at his soiled cloak, making it twist and flap until it was gathered up in one long, bony hand.

5 adjectives in two sentences. And most of them we don’t even need.

      • Dry dust – I’ve never in my life seen wet dust. CHOP.
      • Arid breezes – okay, the arid tells us this place is hot and dry. What can we do to impart that information without an adjective? Valley suggests lush green foliage many plants, so let’s change that to desert and dust to sand. CHOP.
      • Soiled cloak – soiled is a nasty word. And it tells us nothing important. CHOP.
      • Long, bony hand – you don’t often see long hands. Big hands, maybe. The bony, though, that one’s quite useful. KEEP.

So, now we have:

The wind whipped up the sand of the desert floor, spiralling down and coming to rest at the feet of the stranger.  A breeze tugged at his cloak, making it twist and flap until it was gathered up in one bony hand.

The passive voice also needs some work, but let’s ignore that for the time being; we are all about adjectives today.

A shadow crept across the desert floor, following the shapeless, hunched form as it made its way towards a collection of small, misshapen boulders.  The few trees that grew here were twisted and bent, their leafless trunks casting little shade.

So many adjectives….

      • desert floor – we know it’s a desert, now, this is repetition. CHOP.
      • shapeless, hunched form – if it has human form, it’s probably not shapeless. CHOP. Hunched, though, I quite like.
      • small, misshaped boulders – the two pairs in the first sentence create a horrible, repetitive rhythm. Needs to be rephrased. CHOP.
      • few trees – it’s a desert, there’s probably not going to be a lot of trees. CHOP.
      • twisted and bent – the rhythm here is quite nice, but there are way too many adjectives for this sentence to survive intact. One must go. CHOP.
      • leafless trunks – can be paired with twisted. KEEP.
      • little shade – let’s make this even more uncomfortable for the old man and cut all shade. CHOP.

So:

A shadow crept across the ground, following the hunched form as it made its way towards a collection of boulders.  The trees that grew here were twisted and leafless and cast no shade.

Not perfect, by any means, but better.

The dark figure, however, shuffled straight to a warped specimen among the moss-covered rocks.  Something was already there.

Dun-dun-DUN.

      • dark figure – pointless. CHOP.
      • warped specimen – specimen, really? CHOP IT ALL.
      • moss-covered rocks – uh, moss in a desert? CHOP.

The figure, however, shuffled straight to one tree at the heart of the rocks.  Something was already there.

There. The old version runs like:

The wind whipped up the dry dust of the valley floor, spiralling down and coming to rest at the feet of the stranger.  Arid breezes tugged at his soiled cloak, making it twist and flap until it was gathered up in one long, bony hand.  A shadow crept across the desert floor, following the shapeless, hunched form as it made its way towards a collection of small, misshapen boulders.  The few trees that grew here were twisted and bent, their leafless trunks casting little shade.  The dark figure, however, shuffled straight to a warped specimen among the moss-covered rocks.  Something was already there.

And the new version:

The wind whipped up the sand of the desert floor, spiralling down and coming to rest at the feet of the stranger.  A breeze tugged at his cloak, making it twist and flap until it was gathered up in one bony hand. A shadow crept across the ground, following the hunched form as it made its way towards a collection of boulders.  The trees that grew here were twisted and leafless and cast no shade. The figure, however, shuffled straight to one tree at the heart of the rocks.  Something was already there.

All the chaff has been cut away and the actual scene is much clearer. It’s not exactly good writing as it is, but the improvement is colossal.

Too many adjectives cloud the scene, putting distance between the reader and the text. Chop those adjectives and replace them with sharp, powerful stronger nouns and verbs. Your writing will benefit.

What do you think, better, or worse? Did I miss one?

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