Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Overuse of Adjectives

I've been a bit perplexed, both happy and sad, that my new science fiction book is getting far more rave reviews on Authonomy than my fantasy book did. After only a week on the site, my book is already number 1 under thrillers and number 2 in sci-fi. It's great to see people liking the work you do, but I consider myself mainly a fantasy writer, and I only started writing the sci-fi book because it fit into the backstory of my fantasy series. I'm guessing it is because there are so many readers who don't want more Tolkienesque fantasy, along with the fact that the 'voice' in the sci-fi thriller has to be quite different from what I use in fantasy.

Here's a quote from the latest review I got on Authonomy:
"Damn! This is a good read. Fast-paced, interesting characters and a rich setting that is both fantastic and believable."

Another recent one:
"This is science fiction the way I like it. I would have read chapter one in the bookstore and bought it on the spot."

You can't complain about that!

One reviewer perplexed me, though. He said I used 'far too many descriptors' in a paragraph. I understand that overuse of adjectives is supposed to be a bad thing, but I just don't see it. Perhaps you can help me to understand? Here is the offending paragraph:

Fuzzy white poplar seeds floated on the summer breeze.  Zoya stepped carefully over broken sections of concrete.  Trash and shattered glass littered the yellowed grass and weeds that lined the sidewalk.  A sound from the abandoned building to her right brought Zoya to a halt.  There was a crash of metal followed by a yelp.  A wild dog, she thought.  Perhaps a pack.  Why did I let Georgy talk me into this?

Yes, I see how many adjectives I use, but to me it detracts from the building of the world to remove any of them. I can't see removing 'fuzzy' or 'white' from the description of the poplar seeds. 'Pukh', as these seeds are called, is a weird happening in Moscow each summer, where a veritable blizzard of the stuff floats all over, almost like snow. I want the reader to know early on that it is summer, thus 'summer breeze' and 'yellowed grass'. And the trash and broken things are to let the reader know she is walking in a run-down part of the city.

What are your experiences with description?


  1. Hey Ted,

    Generally when people get pulle dup in a story their instinct that soemthing is off is correct. But their suggestion why or how to fix it is usually not (they can't have the overall view of things taht you have).

    In the para you cite, i think each of the descriptions in isolation read very well. Bunched together they feel a bit excessive, it may just be a matter of spreading them out a bit, or restructuring them. Maybe swapping the secnd and third sentences?

    Again, bear in mind I can't have the understanding of what's going on that you do.

    Good to find your blog, will be back.


  2. Thanks, mood. I am trying to think about how it reads if I cut out the second sentence altogether. I'm not sure...

  3. I officially should not be allowed to talk about this. I always over-write, but I also love vivid description, and basically think that anyone who can't handle it is a lazy reader.

    I mean I get how it can affect pacing, but I see nothing wrong with the paragraph you've shared.

  4. The only one that I might remove is shattered (the glass being littered on the grass already says shattered to me), and I might change yellowed to dead or dying.

  5. actually, ted...
    i read it twice, and i enjoyed it both times.

    this whole too many adjectives thing bothers me a bit. sometimes i think that people are so AFRAID that their prose will be a purpley that they cut out anything that gives life and color and vibrance to their writing.

    i know after reading and reading and reading about the craft, i thought, "CRAP! i better go remove a lot of adjectives and discriptors, because the pace has to be super fast to keep any kind of attention!" and removing so much of that stuff, made my story so flat.

    i'm all for word conservation, but i'm also for beautiful writing that transports you when you read it, too...

    i'm guessing it's all a matter of taste.

  6. Yeah, I keep getting comments about the pacing being great, so I'm guessing my fantasy was really too slow!

  7. Nothing wrong with that paragraph, given that it is out of context. One of many things to keep in mind is that everyone has a different view and there fore likes/dislikes will be different.

    The paragraph will read well to someone like me, but not so well to others. If the general view is positive, then by all means take on board what he has said, but he is a lone voice. Not to be ignored, but not to be worshipped.

  8. I think the problem may actually be too little description. The way that paragraph is written makes it seem like it's just a casual bit of description. In this case "fuzzy white" is too much. However, you don't intend the bit about the poplar seeds to be just casual description. You've got a specific image you want to conjure. In this case, you're not describing it enough. There's no way someone who isn't familiar with Moscow will understand what you're trying to refer to with just "fuzzy white poplar seeds". That means nothing to me. If you want to include that detail, and I think it's a very good detail to include, then perhaps you should separate it out and devote an entire paragraph to describing it more clearly and thoroughly. That way people understand it's a unique bit of worldbuilding not just a throw away description of setting.

  9. I might try that, Sarah. I do tend to underdescribe for the most part.

  10. I also love adjectives. (My editor dubbed me the Adjective Queen.) I like what you're showing in this paragraph but I do agree with what Sarah said about not knowing that it's based in Moscow and that it is particular to Moscow. It's very hard to cut descriptors out, especially when you can see the scene in your mind as you're writing. Maybe re-write it and leave it for a day and then come back to it. See if you like it the old way or the new way better. :)

  11. I'm going to agree with Sarah here, at least on the seeds. When you explained afterward, my first thought was "Whoa, that's not what I imagined. And it's such a cool detail!"

    This kind of specific worldbuilding detail is pure gold. See if giving it its own paragraph doesn't help?

  12. We must remember, Ted, this business is very subjective.

    I loved the paragraph. I thought fuzzy white was a little off, but after you explained it, it sounded fine to me. Perhaps you might compare them to cottonwoods, which are exploding here as we speak.

  13. It reads well to me.

    But taste is taste, and we can't all share the same kind. We'll leave the bad stuff to them, and keep the good for ourselves. :)