How to Use Adjectives Wisely and Judiciously

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Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.

First Page

The relentless, screaming siren split the muggy Gulf coast night like bolt lightning rips a summer storm, hot and hard. A boxy fire-red ambulance zig-zagged through dark, foggy streets where other mothers stirred hamburger meat while their thirteen-year-old sons watched reruns of The Simpsons or whined for a new video game. Inside the ambulance a youngish woman in a marker-stained blue sweater dripped tears on her son’s torn black tee shirt. A tired medic with a twenty-four hour beard held up a fluid bag with one hand and checked pulse with his other. Cotton-candy fog from the bay moved in and circled scattered light posts in wisps outside the scratched windows. Bile tasting like guilt rose in her throat, and she felt she might add vomit to her tears.

The sympathetic medic tried to help. “Ma’am, he’s probably gonna make it. His blood pressure and heart rate ain’t real bad. Them pills just knocked him out a little with that beer. But don’t think he got all that much from looking at his vitals. On an empty stomach, it’d hit him fast. Good thing that woman called 911 in time.”

Crystal’s racing pulse didn’t slow. “Yes, thank God,” she whispered. What woman? She forgot at whose house Will was supposed to be, and the woman who called her just said Will was being taken to the hospital. Thank God it was a little town, and she had been close by the kid’s address. She swallowed the sour taste of panic in her throat. The medic’s kind words didn’t make guilt taste any sweeter.

Will is all I have left, she thought. I made a vow when Adam died to take up the slack, and once again I failed. I have to be stronger. Whatever it takes.

She should have monitored Will closer. Was it true he was taking drugs? By thirteen Will should be planning high school courses, not following a pack of losers trying drugs and drinking beer. Her temples pounded like the Presbyterian gong in Shell Beach every Sunday. A familiar migraine was returning with its aura of dancing lights.

Up front the baby-faced ambulance driver complained, “This fog gets any worse, a putty knife would be more useful than them worn-out wipers.”

First-Page Critique

The relentless, screaming siren split the muggy Gulf coast night like bolt lightning rips a summer storm, hot and hard.

Modifiers—adjectives and adverbs—get a bad rap. English and creative writing teachers are known to despise them, and writers themselves haven’t always embraced them with fierce devotion.

Voltaire: “The adjective is the enemy of the noun.”

Twain: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”

Clifton Fadiman: “The adjective is the banana peel of parts of speech.”

King: “The road to hell is paved with adjectives.”

Ben Yagoda: “Kicking things off with adjectives is a little like starting a kids’ birthday party with the broccoli course.”

My feelings about adjectives are mixed. As those same English teachers will tell you, they tend to be lazy or perfunctory. That someone is “gorgeous” tells us nothing about how they look; it merely casts an overarching judgment with respect their physical appearance. Adjectives aren’t descriptions; they’re opinions.

With modifiers, you want to choose your battles. Just because every noun offers itself up for modification(s) doesn’t mean you should modify it. By serving some nouns plain, you give more distinction to those you embellish. Think of adjectives as ketchup or hot sauce; put it on everything and it quickly wears out its welcome.

The opening paragraph of this first page, which finds us with a mother attending her son in the back of an ambulance, batters us with modifiers. [R]elentless screaming, muggy Gulf coast, hot and hard, boxy fire-red … Taken individually, each of these modifiers may add something. Collectively they lose power and become monotonous.

Which doesn’t mean adjectives can’t be piled on to good effect. Do we really want to take a red pencil to Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in the absence of society as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”? And what would Thomas Wolfe have done without his modifiers (“The nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent, the cool clarion earth, the wet loaminess of the garden, the pungent breakfast smells and the floating snow of blossoms…”)?

Still, there are adjectives and adjectives. While “cool clarion” adds something essential to the “earth” that it modifies, what “screaming” adds to a siren is both perfunctory and predictable. As for “cotton candy,” it adds nothing to the fog that helps us see the fog more clearly. In fact it fogs it up, adding connotations of innocent frivolity and sweetness where nothing of the sort pertains.

In the same way metaphors work best when forced on us by our need to make something clearer, the best adjectives are those imposed by necessity rather than those we indulge in or that arise automatically (“blind faith”; abject poverty”; “raving beauty”). In Catch-22, in giving General Dreedle a “ruddy, monolithic” face, Joseph Heller adds something to that face that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Likewise when Jorge Luis Borges writes, “No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night,” only a dunce of an editor would strike that adjective. When Ezra Pound said, “Go in fear of abstractions,” he didn’t mean don’t use them. He meant use them boldly, bravely—and sparingly.

Our opening paragraph with modifiers applied more judiciously:

The siren split the muggy Gulf coast night like lightning. Through dark, foggy streets where other mothers stirred hamburger meat and kids watched reruns of The Simpsons, the ambulance zig-zagged. Inside it a woman dripped tears on her son’s torn tee shirt. A medic with a twenty-four hour beard held a bag of plasma with one hand and checked the boy’s pulse with his other. Beyond the scratched rear window bay fog circled light posts in wisps. Bile rose in the mother’s throat.

What’s sacrificed here by way of specificity of detail is more than made up for in rhythm and pacing, with some details left to the reader’s imagination—which, given the chance and enough to go on—fills them in as well or better than the author in her version.

The rest of this sensational and potentially gripping opening is likewise overwritten, with the “sympathetic” medic’s dialogue turning into a speech—as dialogue tends to do when in excess of two or three lines. Of the six lines spoken by the medic, any one would do to make his point. Given the circumstances, his prolixity seems especially out of place.

The next paragraph (“Crystal’s racing pulse didn’t slow…”) is confusing, with the mother who was “a woman” in the first paragraph referred to now by her first name, while a different “woman”—the one who phoned Woman #1 to inform her that her son was being taken to the hospital—is introduced. The author’s failure to use the past perfect tense (“She had forgotten at whose house Will had been…”) confuses us further.

Your First Page SelginThe next paragraph dips us into the mother’s stream-of-consciousness for some forced exposition (“I made a vow when Adam died…”). Forced exposition is information forced into a character’s dialogue. Though in this case the information is forced into interior rather than spoken dialogue, the result is just as artificial. The second-to-last paragraph compounds this (“She should have monitored Will closer”) while stating things that, if not completely obvious, might be better learned elsewhere and not in the midst of such a dramatic scene.

The last paragraph of this page serves up its finest moment, with the ambulance driver’s dialogue (“This fog gets any worse, a putty knife would be more useful than them worn-out wipers.”) evoking his character while also describing the fog. If only it had come sooner.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

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