A Hot Steaming Roiling Glut of Adjectives

Street Art, Washington Ave, New Orleans, December 2007

I have a thing about adjectives so when I read something that someone has written that is chock full of adjectives inserted willy-nilly it makes me feel like I feel when I can’t open a new jar of preserves or pickles or spaghetti sauce or whatever the jar may hold. It makes me feel annoyed and exasperated. In the hands of some, adjectives become the written equivalent of verbal histrionics, descriptive word acrobats jumping and tumbling all over the page to the point that it completely distracts from the story itself. Overload! Whew!

Descriptive writing doesn’t need a glut (love that word!) of adjectives, it only needs the right adjective(s) within a simple well-written turn of phrase. Take these three sentences, for instance:

“The three of them had the same hair. Not blond, not brown, but something in between: the faded yellow of grass where an animal had slept.”

This brief description of the color of someone’s hair is from a book I’m reading, Torch by Cheryl Strayed. This is the passage that got me started thinking of adjectives today. I know the color of grass where a body has lain just as perfectly as she has described it here for the yellow of her children’s hair. It needs no further adjective other than “yellow” because the descriptive comparison within her language is so pure and vivid I can see it in my mind’s eye.

As a reader, I’m always aware of the overuse of adjectives and, often, will stop reading a story or (especially) a poem for that reason alone. It reeks of trying too hard, of being contrived and I believe an attentive reader picks up on that immediately. As a writer, I tend to be sparse in using adjectives but almost always will delete a word or two before deciding a poem is done, anyway. If the story or poem is a good one, the piece won’t suffer from a lack of flowery and unnecessary descriptives but will be strengthened by your confident, authentic voice.

NaBloPoMo November 2012

6 thoughts on “A Hot Steaming Roiling Glut of Adjectives

  1. interesting..i think there is balance that is needed…and intentionality…i want readers to feel like they are in a story not reading one…i love vivid description…but you are right if you dont know how to do it, it is aparent…


    1. Yes, I am talking about excessive use of adjectives because I also love vivid description. Too many adjectives throughout a piece can totally throw off the flow and rhythm – especially in poetry. Balance is key. This is not a problem you have, Brian. I ‘m not sure you know how long I’ve been reading you! xo


  2. I can’t say that I think about using too many adjectives and probably break all the rules in everything I write. Then again I don’t consider myself a writer either, more of a tinker. I do, however, see your point. There is a certain kind of beauty when someone uses simple an defined strokes to paint a picture even when one is using words to paint with as in the excerpt you used. I’ll have to remember to poke myself from time to time.


    1. I don’t consciously think about how many adjectives a writer uses, it’s just a matter of the work feeling overdone. Don’t worry about breaking rules, just write what feels like you. This is just my personal opinion – there something out there for everyone. 🙂


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