Tag Archives: adjectives

When You Find An Adjective, Kill It

You’ve heard it said that when you find an adjective, kill it. The maxim is difficult to follow, however. In fiction, it’s so easy to write sentences such as the following:

The café was deserted except for a lonely old man.

Why is this a weak sentence? Doesn’t it get the point across? You know he’s lonely and that the café is empty. Except that by resorting to the adjectives deserted, lonely, and old, you haven’t painted much of a picture.

Using adjectives such as those I used above are sort of a shortcut to good writing. Instead of adjectives and adverbs, you should use strong verbs and nouns that convey the same meaning: slammed instead of shut angrily, purred instead of said seductively, obscured by shadows instead of shadowed face.

Try the same sentence that I cited above – with two of the adjectives replaced.

Everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadows.

This image conveys the same meaning, but without resorting to multiple adjectives. You understand that the man is lonely, that he has nowhere to go, that he might be hiding, and that the hour is probably late. The scene is much more effectively set.

Try this one:

Three hungry vultures sat near the man, who lay alone on the harsh, dry plain, his breathing ragged.

How does it read if I replace some of these adjectives with stronger writing?

Three vultures squatted in a circle around the man. The woman had gone away, and the plain stretched out around him. No rain had fallen for a month. His breathing caught in his throat each time that he inhaled.

Certainly draws a better picture, doesn’t it? It’s much more difficult to write this way, but also much more vivid. Try it and see if your own writing isn’t livelier!