The BIGGEST killer of CREATIVE WRITING – the OVERUSE of Adjectives

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“The handsome man walked slowly down the beautiful avenue to meet his gorgeous girlfriend at the expensive cafe.”

Seriously folks…..

One of the hardest things for someone learning English to understand is how to use adjectives in a ‘native’ kind of way.

Firstly everyone learns that an adjective is used to describe a noun, and so they all go on and decide to describe every single noun in a sentence. This can show the teacher that you know what an adjective is and exactly how to use it but actually, it is much more than that, and ultimately something that comes from experience, and the more ‘native’ you become, the less adjectives you use. Weird but true.

So let’s start off – here are a few points to remember when using adjectives:

  1. An adjective is always there to describe a noun.
  2. An adjective is there to describe a noun sometimes.
  3. If a noun can stand by itself without needing an adjective that is much better.

Now how confused are you?

I will say of course No. 1 is too much. Every noun in a sentence DOESN’T require an adjective, that is just plain silly.

Then comes No. 2. An adjective will always describe a noun, but it can be used only sometimes. That is a better definition of usage. The question is when? I will come back to this one.

Then finally No. 3 tells us that nouns can stand alone in a sentence and should if the writer is confident that the story tells you enough. (I will come back to this one too).

Now looking at No. 2 and 3 again:

The key to this one is that an adjective should only be used if the writer believes it is important for the story that the noun is described. Let’s look at these two sentences:

“The man walked slowly down the avenue to meet his girlfriend at the cafe.”

This sentence has no adjectives at all. This sentence is ‘pure story’, nothing else. The reader is simply getting a picture of the person walking down the street and why. This is very easy for a reader because when we read a story we just want to know what is happening first.

However, look at this sentence:

“The man walked slowly down the avenue to meet his girlfriend at the expensive cafe.”

This use of ‘expensive’ tells us not only the story but the fact that the café being expensive is important to the story. Perhaps he is going to ask her to marry him, perhaps he wants to impress her for a reason, perhaps he is walking slowly because the café is expensive and he doesn’t have enough money to pay for it….so many questions come up just from the use of the word ‘expensive’. These questions are very important to the stories future development.

Let’s now look at another adjective usage in this sentence.

“The man walked slowly down the beautiful avenue to meet his girlfriend at the cafe.”

The fact that ‘beautiful’ is used to describe the avenue tells us something about the atmosphere. Perhaps it is indicating how in love the man is with his girlfriend. This then lets us know that something else may happen later because of this man’s feelings.

“The handsome man walked slowly down the avenue to meet his girlfriend at the cafe.”

Using the word ‘handsome’ here tells us something different about the man. It indicates that this man has a sense of his own beauty and style and perhaps has another plan for after he meets the girlfriend. Perhaps he has many girlfriends and this is just one…  This indicates more than just the walk down the street to meet his girlfriend.

So when we consider the use of adjectives in creative writing, a writer needs to understand that the adjective not only describes the noun but gives us indications of other implications in the later story. A piece of creative writing should always tell a story whether it is a poem, a novel, a short story or a play, it is all about a story. The use of the adjective can change everything in the narrative.

A great writer is masterful in how they use adjectives, as they know the placing of a word in or not in a sentence can make a huge difference.

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