Good things come in threes. And today, I’m happy to welcome my third 2008 SCBWI Undiscovered Voices winner to the blog. Steve Hartley and Sara Grant have already offered some excellent advice on writing for comic effect and knocking your first draft into shape. Here’s what Bryony Pearce has to say about the careful use of adjectives and adverbs.
The Diamond Adverb, by Bryony Pearce
One of the things that has been noted in the past about my work is the dearth of adverbs and adjectives. These are fine in their place, but I think they can be overused and that it is a lazy writer who does so.
When I do creative writing workshops I regularly have talented students ask me how they can possibly describe something without using adjectives. In answer I have two pieces of short writing that I show them –
The tall girl in the shimmering blue swimsuit dived gracefully into the bright blue lake and vanished, leaving giant ripples that shivered across the iridescent water and quickly disappeared in their turn leaving behind no sign of her elegant presence.
Emma prepared to dive, lifting her arms over her head and enjoying her stretch. The sun caught her swimsuit, turning her torso into the body of a kingfisher, feathered with snatches of light. Even though the lake was opaque as foil, she dived with no hesitation, slicing through the water like a blade to leave behind only a few ripples that vanished as quickly as she.
I hope that you will agree the second piece of writing is not only more vivid in its description, but that through alternative choices, it tells you more about the diver. For me, description is more than the amassing of details; it is bringing something to life by carefully choosing and arranging words and phrases.
I try to use all of my senses when describing something and instead of the dreaded ‘ad-’ I use similes, metaphors and imagery of various kinds. I always ask myself, what is my character feeling, smelling, tasting as well as what is she seeing?
This is my description of the moment when the angel in Angel’s Fury sheds his human disguise:
The Doctor’s form flickered and disappeared: an image from a burning reel of film. Then wings started to unfurl from the angel’s back. They moved awkwardly, the muscles long disused, cracking like the fingers of an old man. Long feathers unfolded and popped into place over the pinions. Beneath the flight feathers, the vanes were insulated with a cloud of down, so pale and soft my fingers itched to hold them to my cheek.
When I speak to students I ask them to think of an adjective as a diamond and their blank page as a dark blue piece of velvet. If a jeweller wanted to showcase a diamond he would place it in the middle of a piece of velvet and it would look amazing. I ask them to choose one excellent adjective and imagine it as that diamond and their paper as that piece of velvet. Now I ask them to imagine that the jeweller takes a handful of cubic zircons and sprinkles them all around the diamond. Does the diamond look nearly as good? Can they even see it? I tell them to imagine that all the other adjectives that they want to use, apart from the chosen one, are cubic zircons; each additional one that they sprinkle on the page detracts from the diamond. I ask them to restrict their adjective use to one per page and use alternative ways to describe things.
And I always try to remember to do the same myself.
About the Author
Bryony Pearce is a chocolate loving vegetarian with two small children and a lack of time. People who know her are often surprised by how dark her writing really is. She likes to do school visits and events and loves to hear from readers … especially if they liked her work.