Mark Twain, one of the best prose stylists ever ever ever, wrote, “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” When we are writing narratives and striving for “descriptive” prose, many of us reach for those juicy adjectives. I’m trying to kick my adjective habit. I now understand that if I need two words to describe something, especially when I use a long adjective and a noun, I probably haven’t found the best noun yet.
In a letter to a friend, written in 1880, Twain said, “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it: don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
I recently stumbled across a sample college admissions essay that was actually recommended by Connecticut College from their sample “Essays That Worked.” Check out the first paragraph and see an adjective overdose for yourself. I don’t mean to pick on the writer, but adjective restraint is something we all can work on. By the second paragraph, she shifts into a much more direct style of writing and the rest of her essay rocks! See how many adjectives (and adverbs!) you would take out:
Olivia Rabbitt ’16
Bishop Feehan High School, Attleboro, MA
The bright blue eyes that alight with unfettered curiosity on the burgeoning bulletin board are not only my own. Nor are the ears that listen raptly to the hum of student life and the gentle sing-song of our tour guide’s voice. Almost in tandem, my companion and I tear ourselves from the vivid vignette of college life and return with unmatched strides to the vast expanses of the campus. As the tour continues, I am neither surprised by the eager questions my companion poses – “Where’s the baseball field?” – nor by the heightened interest painted so clearly across his face. Wandering amongst the tall stone buildings, I appreciate for the first time how much this visit means to my constant companion, my father.
Click HERE to read entire essay.
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