Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Adjectival Flu

You might remember your middle school language arts teacher encouraging the use of adjectives to "paint a picture" of whatever thing you were describing--furious Uncle Charles, beautiful Aunt Lily, the hungry turtle in the scummy pond. Well, scummy isn't bad, but the reader was forced to take your word for Charles's fury or Lily's beauty. The reality was short changed by the shorthand description, by a lazy adjective. Better far to share Charles's red face, the fists, the shouted expletives--spelled out in dingbats if necessary. Let Lily be lovely by her smooth skin, her cupid's bow mouth, her shining hair and wasp waist. There are adjectives, and then there are adjectives.

So often I see in first drafts that a writer is leaning on large, imprecise adjectives like pillows to avoid crafting language that reveals rather than conceals the textures, characters, and actions s/he is trying to coax to life on the page. This avoidance annoys me especially in poetry, where concision and high energy are, for me, absolute values. That the sky is blue, rather than gray, is useful, but what good in a poem is a word like inevitable or intense? And, no, I'm not prejudiced against words beginning with in. My bias is for precision and too often adjectives are flacid and general. Even blue--what blue, the blue that hurts the eyes at noon, blue edging toward dusk, blue between the clouds? If we must have them, let the adjectives go through a security check at the gate: are they really as precise as a three ounce tube of toothpaste? If not, please deposit them in the bin provided.

PS: I have posted that reading list for culinary fiction I promised a few days ago. Hit the "Free Downloads" page above.

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