You can have my… Revisited

I am, for the most part, a decent kind of person. I don’t start flame wars, I don’t pile on when other people do, I stay away from sites and topics that make me want to throttle someone.

Today, however, I have come across two different sites that said the same thing–DON’T USE ADJECTIVES OR YOU SUCK!!!!11212!ehjouhe–and I have been having a very hard time maintaining my usual even demeanor.

One of the sites had collected five quotes from Stephen King and claimed they were five that all writers should take to heart. I really don’t know how King’s fondness for putting Junior Mints on a toothpick in the movie theater will make my writing better, but then again, I like editors so what do I know?

The very first King quote was “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”. The author of the article gleefully joins the chorus of adverbial hate, without (as usual) bothering to offer suggestions, options, definitions, or even examples. (Also, I noticed that the author of the article did not manage to avoid using an adverb. I did not leave a comment pointing that out.)

The second site I came across is written by “an award-winning author”, though I didn’t bother looking to see what award it was. While the author’s name is unfamiliar to me, that means nothing — I probably wouldn’t recognize this year’s Caldecott Medal winner’s name, either. This author is offering an A-to-Z list of “writing tips”, and right there in the As is “Adjectives”.

“Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly”, Author says, and I just heard you pull that muscle, you rolled your eyes so hard. Here, have an ice pack.

On top of that, in the Ds is “Description”. Author offers examples of passive and active descriptions, but the thing about Author’s examples? Mm-hm. Dripping with adjectives. Seven adjectives and four adverbs in the passive/short example; eighteen adjectives and three adverbs in the longer. And that’s not even counting the prepositional phrases–as they tell you where, they function like adjectives. (Also, there’s a subject-verb disagreement in the second example, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Again, I have not left a comment on that, though I am sorely tempted. After all, if I’m following the advice from Adjectives, then I cannot also follow the advice from Description, can I? They seem to be mutually exclusive.

Sure, there are good reasons not to lard your prose with every adjective and adverb under the sun, but to declare war on them wholesale is pretty much defeating the purpose of writing.

I’m not trying to recite a grocery list, when I write. I am trying to show you the pictures in my head, to bring what I hear and see into being with the admittedly limited medium of the English language. When I see a hot, dusty street, crowded with bodies and all manner of animals, in my head, I don’t want to sit down and write something like, oh, this:

Area: 50 square meters
Population: 2,015
Animals: 110
Temperature: 95 F
Chance Precipitation (percent): .005
Heat index: 115 F

(Numbers are adjectives, by the way — they tell how many.)

You could do something like this, which keeps the numbers:

Two thousand and fifteen people stood in fifty square meters. They were accompanied by a half-dozen dogs, twelve wildebeest, sixteen Guernsey cows (all pregnant), seventy-five parakeets and one very confused-looking penguin. The ambient temperature was 95 degres fahrenheit and rising precipitously. The chance of rainfall was less than five thousandths of one percent. The dew-point was listed as twelve degrees fahrenheit. The heat index was one hundred fifteen.

Or you could just give in and do this, instead:

The narrow street pressed friends and enemies closer than anyone really wanted to be. The smell of cattle and dogs mingled with the scent of humanity and their varied wares, a cloying combination that lingered in clothing even after one made their escape from the area. The merciless sky held nothing more than the sun, not even a wisp of teasing cloud, not even a bird.

Which of those makes you want to keep reading? Which of those rings of story, of potential adventures and heartache and maybe even something funny? I’m going to take a wild guess and strike the first example from the list.

And that is why I refuse to give up on adjectives. And why I refuse to take writing advice from people who actively refuse to be edited, but mostly the former.