Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Writing Tip Tuesday

I realize that it is rather presumptuous of me to disagree with Mark Twain.

But Mark Twain once said: If you find an adjective, kill it.

I agree that there are some adjectives that deserve a quick and painful death:

1. Adjectives that can be replaced with action.

Kill those guys.

Think action, action, action (which translates to, um, verbs).

Here's an example (albeit, a rather lame one): instead of describing the sidewalk as being icy and slippery - have the character slipping and sliding and falling.

2. Adjectives that can be replaced with showing.

Kill those guys, too.

For example, instead of saying he had a messy bedroom, for pete's sake, just show the darn room - you know, with the bed unmade and the pizza box on the floor and the clothes all over the chair and etc. etc etc.

So where do I disagree with Mr. Twain?

I think that adjectives that are part of the showing process and that are specific...

....and that aid in the job of visualization (i.e., help the reader see the image clearly and specifically)....

...deserve to live.

Do not kill them.

Here's an excerpt from How to Steal a Dog. Imagine this scene without adjectives:

The house smelled damp and moldy. The floor was littered with leaves and corns. In the front room, a lumpy couch stood underneath the plywood-covered window....Stacks of yellowing newspapers were piled in one corner. Two empty cans of pork and beans sat on a rusty wood stove. I followed Mama into the kitchen. The cracked linoleum floor was sticky and made squeaky noises as we walked across it. I wrinkled my nose and peered into the sink. Twigs and dirt that had fallen through a hole in the ceiling floated in a puddle of dark brown water.


Sarah Miller said...

I always thought the quote was "If you find an adverb, shoot it." But now that I'm noodling around on Google, I can't actually confirm that...

Barbara O'Connor said...

Oh, hmmmm, well,darn, now I don't know.... Let me know if you find it....

Barbara O'Connor said...

Okay, check this out, Sarah:


Sarah Miller said...

Point for your side!

I dunno whether I bungled it, or it was misquoted when I ran across it. At any rate, here's a little something for both of us:

Adverbs: http://www.twainquotes.com/Adverbs.html

Adjectives: http://www.twainquotes.com/Adjectives.html

Looks like good old Mr. Twain wasn't fond of fluffy modifiers, no matter what part of speech they're paired up with. ;)

Barbara O'Connor said...

I call it a tie. Let's settle for fluffy modifiers and just make up our own dern quote. :-)

Barbara O'Connor said...

I couldn't get my original link to work. Sorry. Try this:


Barbara O'Connor said...

And just so I can beat this dead horse some more - in case that link gets weird and won't open:

"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 close together. They give strength when they are wide apart."