Skip to content

Avoiding adjectivitis

I do a lot of reading of the first pages of books I see recommended on mystery writer/fan pages and websites. When I see a book that looks interesting, especially in the genre in which I write, I usually go to Amazon and read the first page. That’s enough to tell me whether or not I want to read further.

One thing that screams AMATEUR is “adjectivitis,” the overuse of adjectives. I have a theory. I think writers, in an attempt to get their manuscript to a certain prescribed word count that will satisfy an agent or publisher, sprinkle adjectives throughout their manuscript. Did I say sprinkle?Nay. More like a deluge.

In an earlier post, I recommend Don’t Murder Your Mystery, by Chris Roerden, a full time editor for over 40 years. The latter part of the book addresses writing technique and shows writers how to avoid “clichés, verbosity, adjectivitis, and other fatal infections.”

This morning I read the first page of a book from an apparently successful cozy mystery series. Not counting dialog, there were 150 words of narrative, including the following 19 adjectives: Neat, crisp, warm, ramshackle, grandest, decaying, fantastic, fanciful, red, corduroy, little, low, rocky, deep blue, red, gold, bright, fresh, hearty.

There’s not a single adjective on that page that tells me anything significant about the setting. Neat? Warm? Low? Bright? The adjectives, aside from being too numerous, are bland and uninspiring.

Adjectivitis might increase your word count, but it doesn’t enrich the narrative with visuals for the reader. In fact, it does the opposite. It fatigues the reader, whose eye skips over the blandness in order to follow the action or get to the dialog, which is hopefully more stimulating than the descriptions.

I try to avoid adjectives, especially bland, meaningless ones, in my writing and use words that convey something significant about the characters and setting. I went back to the first page of my latest novel and found in the first 400 words of text, exactly eight words/phrases of description. Eight. They include an “insidious” kind of madness, an “off-the-beaten-path” location, and a “cranky” editor.

A character is described as tall and “hawk-nosed.” Doesn’t that tell you something about him? The air isn’t just pleasant; it’s “the kind that makes you grateful you can breathe.”

Please understand. I’m not trying to blow my own horn here. What I am saying is that, as writers, we have an obligation to elevate the language and the genres in which we write to achieve the highest possible standard. To do so, we have to avoid being lazy (or should I say indolent?), scattering adjectives about like birdseed in order to increase word count.

I am a great fan of the Thesaurus in MS Word and use it all the time. It offers dozens of alternatives for bland adjectives like “neat,” “warm,” and “bright.” It’s a surefire antidote for adjectivitis.

Published inadvice for writerscozy mysteriesmystery writingWriting