Kill Your Adjectives.

When in doubt, use a specific noun instead.

Today, I’ll show you one of the easiest ways to write better: kill your adjectives.

In this article, you’ll learn why adjectives are ruining your prose, what kind of adjectives you should eliminate, what kind of adjectives you should keep.

Two takeaways:

  1. Whenever possible, replace adjectives with specific nouns.

  2. Eliminate opinion adjectives, keep photographic adjectives.

Adjectives vs Adverbs

Let’s start with some definitions. What is an adjective? What is an adverb?

Simply put:

  • Adjectives modify the meaning of nouns (ie. objects). They’re used when you need to elaborate on an aspect of an object. Examples include beautiful dress, red meat, heavy dumbbell, etc.

  • Adverbs modify the meaning of verbs (ie. actions). They’re used when you need to change the understanding of an action. Examples include loudly spoke, angrily walked, timidly lowered his head, etc.

You can string many adjectives together, just as you can with adverbs. For example:

  • Adjectives: The tree was big, old, green, and rough to the touch.

  • Adverbs: A writer should only use adverbs cautiously, sparsely, and purposefully.

You can even use many adjectives and adverbs in the same sentence. For example:

  • The big, old tree swayed violently in the heavy windstorm.

The Problem With Adjectives

To understand the problem with adjectives, you need to understand the first principle of writing: paint a picture. (Mastering Fiction students will remember this.)

Paint a picture is the core idea behind “show, don’t tell”. It means you should be visual and specific with your words. Your job as a writer is to deliver a mental image to the reader, as accurately and succinctly as possible.

The first problem with adjectives is that many adjectives deliver no useful mental image. When I say “beautiful woman”, I’m imagining Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, while you’re imagining a brunette in a ball gown. The word “beautiful” has no visual meaning. It does not paint a picture.

The second problem with adjectives is that even if an adjective conveys a mental image, it can probably be replaced by a specific noun (that produces a better mental image).

Let’s take the tree example above. The sentence “The big, old tree swayed violently in the heavy windstorm." doesn’t paint much of a picture. An artist tasked with painting the scene would not know the species of tree, the size and color of the tree, or the kind of windstorm. Two artists given this sentence would paint two very different images.

Now let’s fix it: The old-growth oak tree swayed violently in the derecho.

By changing the adjectives “big” and “old” to “old-growth”, and the noun “tree” to “oak”, I’m giving you a much clearer mental image of the tree. By changing “heavy windstorm” to “derecho”, I’m showing you the strength of the storm.

There were three adjectives in the original sentence. Now there is just one. In the next section, I’ll show you why we kept “old-growth”. Because, unlike people, not all adjectives are created equal.

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Two Types of Adjectives

This is the easiest way to think about adjectives… There are two types: opinion adjectives, and photographic adjectives.

  • Opinion adjectives express a subjective judgment about a thing. They describe opinions about things that vary from person to person (and thus impossible to paint).

  • Photographic adjectives express an objective, measurable attribute of a thing. These attributes are universally agreed upon by observers (and thus paints a picture).

Opinion adjectives should mostly be avoided. They do not add any useful information to a scene. Photographic adjectives can be kept, as long as they aid you in painting a picture.

In the above sentence, “old-growth” is an example of a photographic adjective, as there is a consensus about the meaning of “old-growth”, and most readers have an idea of what an old-growth tree looks like.

Here are some examples of opinion adjectives, paired with a possible photographic counterpart:

  • Beautiful vs red-haired

  • Short vs. shoulder-height

  • Sad vs. teary

  • Sickly vs. jaundiced

  • Delicious vs. sweet

  • Smart vs. witty

  • Happy vs. beaming

  • Boring vs. repetitive

A Note on Specific Nouns

Don’t know a better way to describe something? Use a thesaurus! For example, you’ll find that “light pink” can be described as fuchsia, salmon, or rose.

Don’t know what an object is called? Use a visual dictionary! You’ll discover the exact names for things to help you paint better pictures. For example, if you don’t know how to describe a small window in the attic… Look it up! You’ll find that it’s called a dormer window.

There are around 80,000 nouns in English. You can always find a better noun.

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