By Denise Loock
One Mark Twain quote that pops up at almost every writers’
conference I attend is “when you catch an adjective, kill it.” Seasoned writers
pass on this wisdom because less-experienced writers often consider a plethora
of adjectives a sign of masterful description. For example: John was mesmerized
by the daffodil-yellow polka-dot dress Allison wore, which flattered her willowy
figure and her wavy chestnut-brown shoulder-length hair.
Let’s be clear. No one thinks like that, and no one talks like that either. But the other extreme—no adjectives—isn’t a wise choice either. In fact, Mark Twain himself clarified his position on adjectives: “No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
And that’s what writers need to master—the appropriate use of adjectives. Here are four guidelines for using adjectives that add value, not clutter, to a sentence.
- Adjectives modify words, which means they limit or qualify meaning. Use an adjective to add specificity (exhaust pipe) or to tell us something significant about a character (bloodshot eyes). Don’t use them to add degree or emphasis (long pipe; serious illness).
- One memorable adjective is usually more effective than two or three forgettable ones, which is why Twain advised writers to keep adjectives “wide apart.” Consider this sentence from Leif Enger’s novel Virgil Wander: “At the foot of the city pier stood a threadbare stranger.” Enger uses two adjectives. City tells us both the location of the pier and its type. You could argue that city is an unnecessary adjective, especially if the author has established setting elsewhere. But threadbare—that piques our interest, doesn’t it?
- You don’t have to use uncommon adjectives to impress readers. Familiar is often better. Here’s another Enger sentence: “He had a hundred merry crinkles at his eyes and a long-haul sadness in his shoulders.” The author tells us a lot of this character’s story in one sentence, doesn’t he? And the three adjectives he uses—hundred, merry, and long-haul—are simple yet powerful. No scholarly vocabulary necessary.
- Effective nouns and verbs will reduce the need to use adjectives. Another sentence from Enger: “His face seemed to collapse, then refill.” Similarly, comparisons and contrasts reduce the need for adjectives. You don’t need to insert poor to convey poverty: Other boys talked about their newest Xbox game. Jonas had never seen an Xbox.
Twain himself didn’t always follow his adjective advice. No writer does, so don’t beat yourself up. Here’s a sentence from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “When Tom reached the little isolated frame school-house, he strode in briskly, with the manner of one who had come with all honest speed.” Judge the adjectives he used with school-house. Which ones would you eliminate?
Bottom line: use a deft hand with adjectives. As Twain said elsewhere, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” Chances are, the more striking you do, the more effective the remaining adjectives will be.
 “Letter to D. W. Bowser,” 20 March 1880, twainquotes.com.
 Leif Enger, Virgil Wander (New York: Grove Press, 2018), 8–9, 100.
 from Pudd’nhead Wilson, epigraph for Chapter XI.
(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and 89 Studio.)
Denise Loock is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is the editor for The Journey Christian Newspaper, which reaches over 60,000 online and print readers. As an assistant editor, she helps Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas produce high quality, engaging inspirational books. She accepts freelance editing projects too. Contact her at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org