Should you delete that adjective?

Know your adjectives

Which adjectives should you keep?

One criticism faced by writers regularly is that their writing contains too many adjectives. But an adjective is a good thing, right? It describes the noun and often gives crucial information to readers.

True—adjectives serve an important purpose, but too many of them clutter up a piece of writing and make it unnecessarily heavy. Therefore, a good writer must be smart about the use of adjectives.

What is the problem with using too many adjectives?

  1. They make your sentences too long. Long sentences are difficult to read and understand. They also increase the chance of making a grammatical error.
  2. They hamper the flow of a passage. The reader spends too much time trying to digest each adjective and is distracted from the text.
  3. They make the reader biased. If you write that a character is ‘brilliant’ or ‘disgusting’, readers miss the chance to judge the character on their own. The writer must ‘show, not tell’.
  4. They are often synonymous and, hence, redundant. For example: ‘My father was a calm, peace-loving man.’ Here, ‘calm’ and ‘peace-loving’ mean nearly the same thing and one can be done away with. (This thesaurus from Oxford Dictionaries can help you spot synonyms.)
  5. They make the passage less factual and reliable, and more fanciful, leading to what is known as ‘purple prose’.

How should the writer decide which adjective to keep and which to discard?

A simple way to decide is to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the information necessary? Does it add to the narrative?
  • ‘ He placed his well-worn pipe in the heavy wooden cupboard and took out a new one.’

Here, ‘well-worn’ and ‘new’ are significant words as they explain the subject’s action. But does the reader really need to know what the cupboard is like? Probably not.

  1. Is the information already implied? Can the reader guess the information from the rest of the text without being specifically told about it?
  • ‘She lay down on the green grass.’

Since grass is nearly always green, the reader can probably visualize the colour without being told.

  1. Can the information be shown instead being told?
  • ‘ Tim was a very strong horse.’
  • ‘ Tim could pull four wagons at once’.

The second sentence engages readers more by providing them a chance to judge Tim instead of having to rely on the word of the writer.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering whether to keep that adjective or boot it out, ask these three questions in the context of your passage. You will find yourself creating a leaner, crisper version of your text.

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