Empty adjectives

We learn at school to use lots of adjectives to add depth to our descriptions, but when we leave school and pursue the creative craft of writing stories, we are told that we should avoid adjectives like the plague. In time, I have learned that we still need adjectives but not just any adjective – ones that are specific and not generalised and ambiguous. I call these lazy adjectives ’empty’ because they don’t show the reader what the author really sees. Take the adjective ‘beautiful‘. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The reader does not see the golden rays and red reflections off the clouds when a writer says ‘It was a beautiful sunset‘. Similar adjectives include ‘majestic‘, ‘awesome‘, ‘bad/good‘, and so it goes on. The author may use these adjectives but until he or she describes what they actually see or experience, then it is purely subjective on the part of the writer. The reader misses out on what the author means. Therefore, in order to fully connect with the reader, the author needs to elaborate on exactly what they mean when they say it was a ‘majestic scene‘, ‘an awesome concert‘ or a ‘bad person‘. Yes, it will mean more words are used, but they will not be wasted words.

On the other side of the coin, we have beneficial adjectives that add to what the author is trying to convey. We need to know the colour of a character’s clothing, whether they are tall, short, fat, wiry; their hair is curly or straight, long or short. There are lots of adjectives that do the work to convey a clearer picture to the reader. This also applies to adverbs, but that is another story.

Beneficial adjectives do the work of ‘showing’ the reader what the author wants them to see, while ’empty’ adjectives merely ‘tell’ the reader what the author claims is ‘beautiful, bad, awesome …’ The reader is blindfolded in the author’s landscape. What is beautiful to one person may be mediocre or perhaps ugly to another. A hippopotamus is beautiful to some, ugly and bloated to others.


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