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Never Say It Three Times When Once Will Do

Aspiring writers adore adjectives. I know this is so because my own early work is riddled with phrases like "grasping, snagging claws" and "bright blue eyes as clear as still waters, as pure as azure heavens". The submissions I evaluated at Baen's Universe were likewise filled with adjectives stacked atop each other like building blocks.

I've given this a lot of thought, and I think I that overzealous adjective use, in most cases, stems from indecision. New writers have not yet learned to seek out and seize hold of the perfect word. Instead, they bobble phrases in their hands like priceless gems, unwilling to let any of them slip away. The result is descriptions of "glistening, glimmering, silken hair" and "autumn leaves that spin, swirl, and dance".

If you look closely at the examples above, you'll see that each one describes a single image three times. I know it's hard to let go of beautiful phrases, but over the years I've found that in situations like this, readers respond best to a single, powerful image. Repeating yourself only dilutes the effect.

The phrase "Murder your darlings" is appropriate here.

In my opinion, adjectives are only called for if they're going to change the reader's expectations. The phrase "glistening silken hair" is really just saying in two different ways that the hair is shiny. "Glistening golden hair" or "glistening, corkscrew hair" are better, because each word now conveys a new image. (However, the new image is not much more precise than the previous one, and so one might question whether the additional adjective is really necessary.)

It is possible -- and I've seen it done -- to chain descriptive phrases back to back in complex, comma-delineated structures. The authors who are most adept at this defy expectations with each new descriptor. Each word not only adds information; it also changes the reader's understanding of the scene, and thus becomes indispensable.

Consider the following sentence: "On the rickety table lay a miniature, bright blue key, blazing harshly, dispelling the protective darkness."

Drop all adjectives and adverbs and you get "On the table lay a key, blazing, dispelling the darkness."

If you're like me, the first sentence is far more interesting, even though it is image-laden.

What if I'd used a set of less innovative descriptors? "On the four-legged table lay a pronged metal key, blazing brightly, dispelling the black darkness."

Not impressive. Why? Because my bland adjectives have not added anything new to the scene. Most readers would assume that a table has four legs (although of course a table might have one or three or seven) and that the key is made out of metal (although of course it might be plastic or wood). Likewise, the adverb "brightly" and the adjective "black" do little to change the reader's interpretation of "blazing" and "darkness", and hence are not necessary.

My advice? Use adjectives. Use adverbs. Use every trick in the writer's toolbox; that's what they're there for. But only a word when its absence will irrevocably change the meaning of the sentence.

In other words: Never say it three times when once will do.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 20th, 2012 04:44 pm (UTC)
What? No announcement yet? So let me be the first to congratulate you! So awesome! Yay for you!
Feb. 20th, 2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
Oh, and hey, this was a nice post, too!
Feb. 20th, 2012 05:01 pm (UTC)
Lol! I've announced on twitter and facebook. I always postpone LJ because I feel like I have to, you know, write something SUBSTANTIAL...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )




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