The little manuscript shuffled in and plopped itself down in Overworked and Undpaid Editor’s chair. Overworked and Underpaid Editor let her glasses slip down her nose to observe the forlorn expression of the manuscript, now wet with tears and a snuffly nose. Indeed, it looked as though it had been through the wringer.

Little Manuscript: I’m exhausted.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: I can see that.

Little Manuscript: Do I need an appointment? I’m in a terrible way and need to be checked over. I just got rejected again, and I’ve lost count as to how many that makes.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: [pulling out her trusty red pen] Do you mind? I need to diagnose your problem. It’ll only hurt for a minute. Pinky swear.

Little Manuscript: Ow, ow, ow. Gentle!

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Sorry, but your little pages are pretty singed in places. What happened here? Did you have a major fire?

Little Manuscript: Oh, it wasn’t just any fire, it was a raging inferno, crackling, hissing, and taking no prisoners.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: [flipping the pages] Ah yes, I see the problem. You have a bad case of Adjective-itis. Terrible stuff.

Little Manuscript: But I thought adjectives were the good guys.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Well, yes they are, but they can also create reader overload if they’re gunked together. let’s go back to first base, shall we? Adjectives describe or modify another person or thing in the sentence. The dumb beagle. A drunkard beagle. The useless beagle. These are adjectives that describe my excuse of a secretary.

Adjectives are fine in and of themselves but, just like the beagle’s margaritas, one can over-imbibe. Here, let me use one of your passages to point out what I mean:

The woman climbed out her rusty red jeep and dusted off her muddy threadbare pants. She looked at the blood-red moon sitting in the partly clouded sky and drew her rough-hewn wool jacket closely around her tired, rounded shoulders. Calloused hands held a dirty map, and she shivered in the freezing night, worried that her insane tour guide would notice the map was missing from his filthy, waterlogged backpack.

Gah! There are enough adjectives in this mess to choke a donkey. You have 69 words in that paragraph and 14 adjectives.

Little Manuscript: But I wanted to give the reader a mental picture of the setting.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Well you did that and a bag of potato chips. You barfed description all over the place, and the result is that my brain is on sensory overload that feels like you rammed down my throat with a pitchfork.

Ok, I’ll admit that this paragraph isn’t really that horrible, but an entire manuscript written like this is going to make some poor editor throw herself under a bus. You have to keep in mind that adjectives are delicate little flowers and shouldn’t be asked to do more work than they should – which is what you did in that paragraph.You also used adjectives where none were really needed. A rewrite would be able to knock many of those out and enrich your story.

Don’t forget that you have a whole host of strong helpers, like verbs and nouns to help round out your writing. Let them shoulder the hard work of description. And for Pete’s sake, don’t use those fluffy lily-pants adjectives like beautiful, lovely, fascinating, or interesting because they don’t really say anthing. It’s telling, not showing – which is a whole other diagnosis.

The reason this manuscript doesn’t work is because you wrote it in the same manner, and it has this ka-thunk cadence to it. It’s as if you wrote the paragraph and tossed some adjectives in front of the nouns and called it descriptive prose – which it is. But it’s also clunky. Here, let’s try it again, shall we?

The woman climbed out her rusty red jeep and dusted the mud off her threadbare pants. The night air cooled with the setting sun, and she was suddenly grateful for the jacket whose rough wool made her cringe when she’d bought it at in the bazaar earlier that day. She was exhausted from the long trip and still faced hours of driving before she could rest. Lost, she squinted at the map she stole from her tour guide after he fell asleep in a drunken haze. What could she do? The six inch knife he kept waving in her face convinced her that his mind had snapped, especially when he insisted she’d brought bad luck to his village. It was either steal the map and the jeep, or stick around and have her throat slit while she slept. The moon offered little in the way of light as she tried reading the map through the flecks of dirt and water stains.

Little Manuscript: [sobbing] Oh GOD! That is so much better! I’m-I’m terminal, aren’t I? Am I going to die?

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Of course not. But we must operate immediatly with a sharp scalpel and wicked red pen. See, the reason this new paragraph works is because I created excitement and interest. I showed instead of told, and I utilized my stronger buddies, those verbs and nouns to do the heavy lifting. Lastly, I didn’t go all forumla on you; I mixed up the style, which forced me to reveal more information – which made it more interesting.

Little Manuscript: Oh, surgery would be great. Thank you! Oh, how sweet, that beagle just brought in a pitcher of margaritas to calm my nerves.

Overworked and Underpaid Editor: Oh, that’s not for you. It’s for me. We have a policy around these parts; beagles don’t let editors write sober. Now just lie down; this won’t hurt a bit.

4 Responses to Adjective-itis

  1. Nicola Morgan says:

    Beautiful. Not to mention gorgeous, pertinent, apt, cute, lovely, important, timely, necessary, and absolutely certain to fall on deaf, unhearing ears.

  2. Ahhahahahaha! Oh dear Lord that’s funny. A choccie martini for the brilliant British author.

  3. tbrosz says:

    So we showed instead of told, and replaced all those adjectives with interesting information and background.

    Of course, now your manuscript is wayyy too long.

    Reject! 🙂

  4. Of course, now your manuscript is wayyy too long.

    Nah, not buying it, Tom. Full, well-rounded writing doesn’t equate to a huge word count because you’re actually condensing. The extra stuff I added in that sample paragraph was information that was invariably added somewhere else – and it took longer to say it. In reality, I cut down on the word count of this imaginary manuscript.

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