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Thinking about how to avoid unnecessary adjectives

August 10, 2011

There is a small part of every journalist that wants to be a writer because he believes he is smarter than everyone else or because he believes his personal lens can somehow provide a more real view of the world than someone else’s. That mindset is called ego, and it is actually something of a necessity to confident writing, so long as the journalist is aware of it and can keep it in check. Where journalists run into trouble, though, is when they let their own cleverness taint the story.

One of the easiest traps to fall into when writing a narrative — and this is often more true in magazine writing than newspaper writing — is to use lots and lots of adjectives. The writer’s gut instinct is to do whatever he has to in order to put the reader in his own shoes, to let him see the same sights and hear the same sounds and feel the same emotions. There is, however, such a thing as an overly written adjective, and when a writer really gets on a roll, descriptive words can acquire a strange hint of cruelty. Furthermore, a preponderance of adjectives will often fall into a story in lieu of plot, turning the story into a mishmash of jumbled descriptions rather than cleanly linked scenes.

The thing a writer always needs to realize, though, is that while his is the lens through which the scenes will be shown, the story does not belong to him. Instead, it belongs to his subjects. Furthermore, if a writer is castigating his own subjects with adjectives in order to somehow boost himself, what he is actually telling his reader is that the story isn’t worth reading.

Empathy is as vital to writing what may seem like a softer narrative as it is in telling stories about death and disease. These are also the stories where the writer can easily fall into the trap of over-saturating his story with adjectives and adverbs. The reality is, though, that what overwriting is often masking is poor reporting. When a writer fails to talk to enough people or figure out what his story actually is, the immediate instinct is to turn to the one thing he knows best: His own words.*

*A quick digression here: When I say empathy, I’m not saying believe everything you’re told and or to be sympathetic to every one of your subjects. I am saying, though, think about the whys. Most of the sad or ugly things — or the good things, for that matter — in the world are that why for a reason, and part of your job is finding that reason. If you can do that successfully and convey the reason behind a reality to your audience, your stories will immediately take a step up. Often, the most important question we answer are not the who/what/where/when’s but the hows and whys, especially in narrative.

Often, a young writer isn’t immediately concerned that his words might not be as accurate or fair as letting the people stand for themselves would be, a symptom of not taking the power of narrative into account as much as he should. The main goal is to simply tap the words out and see how they stand. The problem is, though, that without very good editing, these words will end up running just as jumbled as the writer originally spelled them out, and any narrative arc will be lost in the glare of a few overly shiny adjectives.

The best advice I have for a young writer (and, honestly, I am nothing but a young writer so in a weird way I’m writing to myself here) when taking on a longer, narrative story is to first take into consideration the story he’s trying to tell. Know your slant, know the underlying issues that exist and consider whether these are more important than the story you originally set out to tell. (You’ll be surprised at how often that last part is true.)

The key to telling a good story is interesting characters and a plot — once those two elements fall into place, the right words will follow after some labor and good editing. The journalist who turns to good writing first, though, without consideration for his characters or his plot will see his story quickly devolve into a bizarre mess that will leave both reader and writer frustrated with the final product.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe Ragazzo permalink
    August 10, 2011 12:30 pm

    I’m glad you wrote this, Adam. Adjectives are imprecise and not bad by their nature, but often overused or used improperly as you say. I’m wondering, though, what do you think is a bigger trap, using too many adjectives? or using adverbs? I think adverbs. They’re often used to intensify meaning, not alter. For example, there is no need to say “I smiled happily.” What do you think?

    • Adam Wagner permalink*
      August 10, 2011 3:10 pm

      Joe, while adjectives have their pitfalls, adverbs are just heinous. Your audience knows that someone is likely smiling because she’s happy, and if she isn’t, her character or the plot should convey the proper emotion of her smile. I think the key to both of these is to write as tightly as possible and then, if in editing you think a sentence needs something else to work effectively, consider the limited use of adjectives and never of adverbs. Otherwise, they’re just clutter. Adjectives unquestionably have a place in language, but it’s obvious when a writer is using them to help the reader and when he’s using them to pull himself up at the expense of the story.

      As for the intensifying not altering part, I agree, but often in intensifying we inadvertently alter via hyperbole or overemphasis. The other problem with intensifying is once you start adding flowery words, there’s more room for confusion or double meaning.

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