Adjectives: Lazy Shorthand or Powerhouse?

One of the many pieces of writing advice floating around the blogosphere is to reduce/eliminate adjectives and adverbs. Words that play a supporting role to other words are often a lazy shorthand for work better accomplished by the nouns and verbs themselves, especially if they fall into the category of cliché. Consider the relative strength of these two sentences:

He stepped lightly onto the small open motorboat. 
He hopped aboard the center console.

While more dependent on boat knowledge, the second sentence is both stronger and easier to absorb.

bear lazy in woods

Adjective Power

When used as a tactical shorthand, though, adjectives can be quite powerful all on their own. Last week, I submitted the first round of “tip sheets” to my publisher. The goal of these sheets is to give designers and editors a quick sense of what a book’s about, since most will have neither the time nor the interest to read the entire manuscript. I definitely expected to be asked for a short and long book description (see the back cover of any paperback.) Describing the main character also seemed like a no-brainer. What was quite unexpected was the request for “ten adjectives that describe your book”—and then, even more surprisingly, “ten adjectives that DO NOT describe your book.” (Scroll down to see what I chose.)

I filled out the forms, got feedback from agent and publicist, and then looked them over once again before sending. What struck me most on that final read-through was the strength of those two strings of adjectives—especially taken back to back. This “lazy shorthand” bookended the book’s tone, as well as the author’s vision for it, in a way that even the long description did not. Bypassing the writer’s need to polish and present the perfect prose provided a shortcut to the real “sense” of story. 


A poem under my desk blotter by William Meredith entitled “What I Remember the Writers Telling Me When I Was Young” ends with, “The contrasts want to run together and must not be allowed to. They’re what you see with. Keep your word-hoard dry.” Adjectives, then, are crucial to my “word-hoard,” because they help our brains build a scene from words on the page. They may also be crutches, making it possible to avoid the hard work of finding stronger language, but—even as I write about a salt-sprayed world—I’ll try to keep them dry.

Ferry to Cooperation Island

10 adjectives that describe your book

salt-sprayed, self-contained, coastal, hopeful, sunny, small-town, upmarket, outdoorsy, car-less, ocean view

10 adjectives that do NOT describe your book

dark, horrible, graphic, citified, tropical, wintry, paved, frenzied, impersonal, clichéd

Got a pet peeve about adjectives, or think I missed something? Comment below, or send me an email. Thanks for reading!