Take It Easy On Those Adjectives

"If  I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written."
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

"Nearly twenty-five years ago I was called into the office of Anna Wintour, my boss during her brief interregnum at House & Garden magazine before she ascended to fashion glory as editor-in-excelsis of Vogue. "You use too many adjectives," she told me. "I don't like adjectives. That's all."'
Martin Filler, via The Cut

I'm an abuser of those useful, plentiful, expressive words called "adjectives". I especially love them in sets of three.  I've been trying to cut-back, inspired by my little Hemingway phase.

I love the plainness of his text. Even when he uses adjectives, as in "first true simple declarative sentence", there aren't any commas. They aren't separate qualities. It is a compound of words to describe one very specific thing - the way one would describe an East African Desert Mole Rat.

It would be even more of a challenge to work for Anna Wintour. I can't imagine trying to describe clothes with out adjectives.

Do you have any tips for telling it like it is?

[ (p.s) A few new words. ... and only one is an adjective]


  1. One of my latest hobbies has been to troll through WordPress and Blogger forums to find the blogs of others. I life sifting through the pixel-laden matter to see what kind of gems are out there. The rhinestones are always the blogs with superfluous adjectives. Flashy, no depth, using flowery words to compensate for lack of substance.

    Here's a good one I like -- simple, clean, articulate. A gem (like yours, but different): http://effeuiller.wordpress.com/

  2. one thing i dislike is rule, or superiority of style. it isn't so much too many or lack of adjectives, but how they're used. the talent lies in the cunning skill, style is second.

    i do enjoy reading of movement - description that comes from attention to the detail of action.

  3. crashcourse : I will have to check it out! Thank you for the recommendation. I already like the title - that is quite the word "effeuiller".

    monica : I totally agree with you. One of the greatest things about literature is if a writer has something to say,that takes precedent over how it's said. Just when the standard for literature have been agreed upon, someone comes along and changes it all. Those are usually my favorite writers.

  4. Love this post! I have a problem with prepositional phrases, and my high school comp teacher (whom I give full attribution for my devotion to writing) would make me highlight every single prepositional phrase I used in every essay, and then get rid of half of them. Ultimately I realized it wasn't the numbers he was bringing to my attention, but the intentionality behind my writing.
    He would also make us do exercises in which we would mimic sentence structures of classic authors like Hemingway, using completely different words, but in the same order. It helped us understand why each writer was effective with their language use.

  5. Bethany : My highschool english teacher is the reason I love reading (and writing!) too.

    I think prepositions are such a fall back for people of our generation because the need to connect ideas was so drilled into us when we were learning to write essays.

    I think I will try the exercise you metioned! ("I will try the exercise you mentioned, I think")

  6. One of my best teachers from high school once compared my writing to driving. He said "you're taking the long, slow, country road, stopping and describing everything you see. This is an analytical paper. Hop on the highway and be fuel efficient." It's constantly stuck with me...and so has the fact that I would much rather be stranded on a country road instead of a highway. When I was in college I double majored in English and Philosophy, and was constantly having to switch my writing brain from "highway" to "country road." It was difficult at first, but I managed to keep them straight. A part of me always liked the country road philosophy papers a little more though. There's a beauty in simple text, and it's wonderful to be able to efficiently "tell it like it is." I've just never been much good at it...


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