Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Going Overboard

I've talked a lot about the need to strike a balance between providing enough description to capture the moment, but also holding off enough to let the reader's imagination work for them.  However, there is something that too many writer's are guilty of from time to time, including yours truly.

Excessive use of adverbs and adjectives.

Before you groan and roll your eyes, I swear I'm not turning into that old English teacher with the wooden ruler, standing at the chalkboard and ready to flay you alive for not remembering to eliminate a dangling participle.  But too many of us, in an attempt to convey just the right spirit, go way way way over the top when it comes to our descriptions.  Consider this:

Mike sprinted quickly to the smoky colored grey fence.  The early morning fog clung low to the ground, and he could barely make out any of the hazy shapes in the misty meadow.  He fingered the slick stock of the rifle as he drew it to his face and peered like a hunter down the sites.  Mike's meaty finger slowly eased back the trigger and the weapon kicked strong against his shoulder.  His target dropped quickly to the ground, and Mike knew he could happily smile again.

Notice anything?  I did - in my attempt to convey the mood, I used way too many adverbs, most of them redundant,  Let's try it again:

Mike sprinted to the smoky colored fence. The morning fog clung to the ground, and he could barely make out any of the figures in the misty meadow. He fingered the stock of the rifle as he drew it to his face and peered down the sites. Mike's meaty finger eased back the trigger and the weapon kicked against his shoulder. His target dropped, and Mike smiled.

What's the difference in the two?  I pruned the second one.  Sprinted quickly?  How else does one sprint.  And when you think of a smoky colored fence, does any color come to mind except grey?  Doesn't peering down the sites imply eyes like a hunter?  Wouldn't a target that dropped usually do so quickly?  And how could you smile in any way but happily?

To me, excessive use of descriptors shows one of two things - either the writer is inexperienced, or they're insecure.  The first fault can be overcome through countless hours of reading and writing.  During that process, you learn what works and what doesn't, as well as how to trust what you've said.  You eventually get that the reader knows that sprinting is done quickly and that a smile is always happy unless you go out of your way to convey a different meaning.  The second fault, insecurity, takes a lot more to overcome.  Those who are insecure don't trust the reader to get what they're saying unless it's explained in such minute detail that there's little left to the imagination.  In short, you are concluding your reader is a stupid child who must be talked down to, or they will just never get it.

During the editing process, I've been amazed at how many unnecessary adjectives and adverbs have come up.  I weed them out as much as I can, but I always find more on the next reading.  Why do we do that?  I think we're so attached to our story, and we so badly want people to get the message we want to convey, that we lose sight of the reader's imagination and intelligence.

Some are necessary, but most are throwaways that need to be gone when we're polishing our stories.  The best writers know how to do this - do you?

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