Adjectives, adverbs, and abstractions. Sure, they’re helpful when we’re trying to describe a house or a tree or the way we felt after an argument.
But they’re dangerous–so easy to overdo.
I think of adjectives as accessories, along with the advice to “take one thing off.” They can compress, but they might not be as specific as an image. Think of an old house. Think of a house with paint peeling from the window sills. The second example is longer, but it’s also more visual. Think about why the house being old is important.
Adverbs, for me, are a little easier–where there’s an adverb, there’s likely another verb lurking, with more punch to pack. Verbs add momentum and power. The verbs you don’t expect can make a poem sing, steal a reader’s breath away.
Abstractions can sneak into your poem. The easy ones are words like happiness, inspiration, redemption. They’re fine words, but you can’t see them.
Could you replace those words with an image you can see or hear or smell or touch or taste?
And the tricky ones are words like dream. A dream you had last night feels concrete enough, so you think you’re safe–but then those dreams of being famous slip in. Harder to see, ripe for an image.
Recently I received a rejection letter, noting the poem that seemed to come closest still seemed like it needed spicier language. Hmmm… When I looked at the poem, I saw that word dream and thought maybe I needed an image instead.
Try it. Pick up a poem that’s been giving you trouble. Cross out all the adjectives and adverbs. Circle all the nouns and verbs they modified. Circle the abstractions. What new verbs and images can you find? How does it change your poem?
Just for fun
Kill the Adjectives
from an NPR report, March 12, 2004
The movement would have you remove them.
Spokesmen speak nothing of adverbs,
posit only that adjectives are too many,
an embarrassment, a waste of riches,
and must be cut by the careless
or by the neophyte. If you won’t use them,
you’re allowed to try. If you string them
together like beads, in phrases of two or three,
you have over-accessorized.
(Take one modifier off.)
They expect only experts
to describe with qualifiers,
craft sentences with discernment,
and balance their weight in verbs.
Originally published in Plainsongs.