The Proper Way to Use Adjectives (Part 1)

Adjectives are often abused and misused. As an editor, I frequently see writers piling adjective after adjective before a single noun. This makes for extremely cramped passages, and writers usually justify it by stating they have a “descriptive style.”

There’s nothing wrong with that. However, there’s a way to write with a descriptive style, and stacking two, three adjectives before a noun in a descriptive passage is not that way. It leads to purple prose.

(Note: Two adjectives before a noun is fine, if the sentence is not part of a lengthy descriptive passage.)

For those unaware, purple prose is “prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery it breaks the flow and draws excessive attention to itself.”

Simply stated, it’s over-the-top description. By cramming a bunch of adjectives before a single noun in a single passage, you’re suffocating readers.

Example from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer:

“His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.”

Annoying, right? Right! Now, let’s un-purple this passage:

His white skin, despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted chest, his scintillating arms bare. His lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.

Better, yeah? Notice how I edited this passage, and the writer’s style was not affected. How did I un-purple this passage? I used one adjective per noun (not two or three), which created parallel structure: white skin, sculpted chest, lavender lids, unknown stone.

Here’s a passage from Fever by Lauren DeStefano:

“The Reds are Madame’s favorites: Scarlett and Coral have been with her since they were babies, and she lets them borrow her costume jewelry. She lets them take hot baths and gives them the ripest strawberries from another little garden she grows behind the tent, because their bright eyes and long hair fetch the highest prices.”

Notice the parallel structure: costume jewelry, hot baths, ripest strawberries, little garden, bright eyes, long hair, highest prices.

And that, folx, is the proper way to use adjectives. It’s okay to be descriptive; just take care not to pile too many adjectives before a noun, especially during a single passage.

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