Cut Your Unnecessary Adjectives

Did you notice that I used an adjective in the title?  That’s important.  I’ve seen a lot of comments on the internet demonizing adjectives.  So you have to ask yourself: why?  What’s with all the backlash? Don’t I need to describe what I’m talking about?  How can I avoid telling if you won’t let me show?

Well, first off, relax.  No one is saying you need to cut out all your adjectives; your prose will read like a Dick & Jane primer.  The biggest problem with adjectives is that they can trick you into thinking you’re saying something unique, when really you’re just wasting words.  Take a look at this:

The big, pale grey elephant extended his leathery trunk towards the cool, still pool of water, letting it slip beneath the surface to drink in the refreshing water. (28 words.)

What is it you’re actually trying to say here in terms of plot?  The elephant drank water.  (4 words.)  That should clue you in right away that something is wrong.  So if this sentence doesn’t contribute to the plot, what does it tell you about the character?  Nothing, really.  We know nothing about this particular elephant other than the description, which is exactly like every other elephant we’ve ever seen.

All elephants are big and grey.  All trunks are leathery.  Even the pool descriptors are a little redundant, although at least they tell you that the water is fresh, as opposed to a rotten watering hole where flies buzzed over the carcasses of dead animals.  (Note: saying the watering hole is rotten is “telling.”  Describing the flies buzzing over the carcasses is “showing.”)

And that’s the point here: adjectives have to serve a purpose.  They are designed to draw the reader’s attention to some important detail: a big, grey elephant is not unique.  A tiny, constipated, pink elephant is insanely unique, and those are details you should absolutely include, lest we automatically think of a big, grey elephant.

In flash fiction, every word counts.  You can’t let adjectives that contribute nothing to your narrative steal away precious space that could be used in other ways.  So go back in there and cut out every “crunchy, crispy, orange” carrot, every “arrogant, bombastic” braggart, every “timid, fluffy, brown” bunny.  You’d be amazed how much room you have left over for soggy, brown carrots; neurotic, insecure braggarts; and carnivorous, blood-thirsty, spiky bunnies.

Happy writing!


One thought on “Cut Your Unnecessary Adjectives

  1. Pingback: Word Counts Part Two: How to Trim – Liz Schriftsteller

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