I’m in the midst of editing a 150,000+ novel (have you any idea just how LONG a manuscript of almost 600 pages is?) by a writer who suffers from what I’ll call adjectivitis.
Luckily for me, the story is fresh and the characters interesting . . . but it’s gonna be a whole lot tighter when I get done. Here are some of the things I’ve encountered in the midst of a lot of good writing:
Once character is a very large man, and every time his hands are referred to they are not “his” hands, they are always “the massive hands.” Every time, which is a lot in this story.
I’ve encountered “the small boy” a couple of dozen times—luckily he grew up. But once we knew he was small, there was no need to remind us over and over.
Another thing about “small” (and large): it’s a relative term. I am small compared to a professional basketball player, but I am large compared to my 2-year-old grandson. If you want the reader to see something as small or large, it’s not going to actually happen unless there is context or comparison to give it dimension.
One character has black hair, but she is described at least thirty times as “raven-haired,” as in “raven-haired beauty” and “raven-haired woman.” Most of that is going to go, replaced by "she."
Beautiful makes its appearance more than thirty time as well, as in beautiful woman, beautiful mother, beautiful eyes, beautiful food . . . In my view, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder (the character), just the use of the adjective doesn’t get a description very far.
I wrote about this in Flogging the Quill (the book)—author Barbara D’Amato once wrote in a post for The Outfit about what she called “conclusion” words. Beautiful is one of them. It’s not a description, it’s a conclusion. Here’s the example I give:
Allyson was beautiful.
Any picture of Allyson has to be reader-generated, and may have nothing to do with what the author intends. Beauty is subjective. You may think an anorexically thin Allyson to be beautiful while I think she should see a doctor. Steve may think that a woman with a good extra fifty pounds of love handles is beautiful while Roger thinks she should call Weight Watchers. And so on.
The difference between telling and showing usually boils down to the physical senses.
If the author wants us to think Allyson is beautiful, she needs to give us pictures that illustrate beauty, not labels.
Allyson moved with a ballerina’s grace, and her slim figure made any clothing look good. Hair the color of dark chocolate framed a face that made Johnny think of a princess in a fairy tale, and he wanted to be the one to kiss lips that smiled and pouted and invited, all at the same time.
That’s not to say that you should avoid the word beautiful. It can be quite useful in characterizing. For example, here’s a descriptive passage in which two teenage boys are going to work on a ranch for the summer and go to a small log cabin that’s to be their summer quarters.
Excitement grew in Jesse as they approached the cabin. A place all their own. No grown-ups.
Inside, they stood in a main room just big enough for a double bunk bed, a four-drawer dresser, two chairs beside a small table, and a little space left over to walk around. A battered old radio sat on the table, and an easy-going breeze wafted through the screened door and out the single side window.
A doorway into the bathroom revealed an old-fashioned tub with feet; a metal bar suspended from the ceiling encircled it with a shower curtain. Jesse stepped to the door and looked in. The toilet had a seat but no lid, the sink a medicine cabinet above it, but the mirror was cracked.
So “conclusion” words can be useful when you use them to describe just that: a conclusion.
Adjectivitis ultimately has the opposite effect intended by the author—instead of enriching the narrative with visuals that bring the experience to the reader, over-use of adjectives soon becomes tiring and the eye skips over them to follow the action, and that’s not what the author wants. If you notice symptoms of adjectivitis in your writing, I advise the surgical application of your delete key.
Okay, I’ve had my rant. Back to the edit.
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