Be descriptive. Use adjectives. Depict people and places in great detail. Be specific. Writers hear those instructions all the time. We covered character descriptions a few “Lies” back, and this edition continues the theme. “Descriptive writing” is not necessarily bad advice, but a common mistake inexperienced writers make is listening too well and overdoing it as a result.
From time to time I am asked to judge writing contests. Some entries suffer from a malady I call adjective cancer. In prose suffering this condition, few nouns escape without carrying an adjective and some are burdened with compound adjectives.
Here’s an excerpt from a story that demonstrates the diagnosis:
The six-foot-two guide knelt in the rear of the fourteen-foot dark green canoe, his well-developed body rippling under his soggy white t-shirt while he worked the paddle. He shivered in the early morning air, the icy rain numbed his face, and water dripped off the bill of his blue UCLA cap. The neoprene gloves kept his hands from freezing.
I changed things up a bit to protect the patient’s identity, but not enough to treat the disease or relieve the symptoms. That’s what it reads like. Really. For page after page.
Now, I have no formal training in creative writing. Fact is, I’ve never taken a class in the subject. It’s altogether possible, then, that I am up in the (dark and dreary) night. But the kind of writing I prefer uses adjectives sparingly and allows the reader to participate in painting the picture. Abuse of adjectives not only excludes readers from imagining the scene, it bogs down the story.
Strunk and White say it best in The Elements of Style: “Write with nouns and verbs.” I’ll buy that. Give me spare, clean writing without a lot of adjectives every time (he said, using adjectives).
Don’t even ask me about adverbs.