When You Write, Edit the Adjectives and Pound the Nouns
I noticed something odd last week while watching Father of The Bride with Kate. It wasn’t the fact that some entrepreneur shoemaker could afford a million-dollar house in California. I’d noticed that bizarre write-in before.
No, this oddity was hidden in the film’s dialogue.
Look at these lines from George and Annie’s pre-wedding conversation. George (the dad) gets out of bed because he hears Annie (the future bride) dribbling a basketball in the middle of the night.
Annie: Did I wake you?
George: No, no. I was up. So, what are you doing?
Annie: I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking about how this was my last night in my bed, in my house…It was so strange, packing up my room. You know how you’ve always trained me never to throw anything away? So, like, I have all these ratty stuffed animals and yearbooks, my old retainer… all my old magic tricks. I’ve actually packed it all. I mean, I know I can’t stay. But it’s like…I don’t want to leave.
George: Well, that’s the thing about life, is, uh… the surprises. The little things that sneak up on you and grab hold of you.
[SNOW BEGINS TO FALL]
Annie: Oh, my God! Talk about surprises.
George: It hasn’t snowed in L.A. since I was nine.
When I read this scene, I wondered: where are the adjectives?
There are only six adjectives in this passage of 139 words (last, strange, ratty, old, old, and little).
Granted, this is a film. We don’t need to describe how orange and porous the basketball is because we can see it on screen. When one of the wedding planners says “thank God snow is white!” in the next scene, he’s not revealing any new information to you.
The question is, do the adjectives pile up without on-screen assistance? Less than you’d think. Here’s a passage from one of my favorite New York Times articles ever. It’s about Diplo. See if you can find the adjectives:
Around 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, the party really found its groove. Diplo, the D.J., songwriter, and record producer, was holding court behind a pair of Pioneer decks, wearing a Kermit-green poncho and matching bucket hat, manipulating an undulating, underwater-sounding dance track with buttons and knobs…
Diplo invited a fan, Robin Spears, to share the spotlight with him and Mr. Francis on one condition: dance. Ms. Spears happily obliged, throwing her hands above her head and then back and forth, swimming through air. Her roommate, Sterling Morris, pumped her fist and then turned around, backed it up, and wobbled like a Weeble.
I counted 6 adjectives again (out of 104 words). Most of them are in the first paragraph as the author sets the scene. Once that’s done, we move into action: nouns, pronouns, and verbs.
We writers LOVE adjectives. We can’t wait to tell you about that dark, damp, cloudy afternoon we spent on the rolling green hills. It’s not our fault. We learned writing through the lens of literature. Mean old Mrs. Jones taught us about the yellow wallpaper, dangerous games, and bell jars.
The truth is, though, you don’t need an avalanche of adjectives to get the point across. Although these descriptors are nice, they are not always necessary.
“Florid writing works for some people,” says entrepreneur and essayist Paul Graham. “But unless you’re one of them, the best advice is to write as simply as you can.”
It’s true. Since most of us do nonfiction writing, the goal is clarity. Powerful verbs and nouns trump flowery adjectives. That’s why this sentence from the Father of The Bride sticks:
“The little things that sneak up on you and grab you.”
When you write, edit the adjectives. Pound the nouns and verbs instead.