My Institute for Children’s Literature* curriculum encourages writers to use specific rather than general words. For instance, using blue jay instead of bird and cobalt instead of blue conveys a specific picture. They gave us an exercise in which we had to replace bland, boring adjectives with more specific ones. This makes sense. Even as a novelist, I must still conserve words, and I want my audience to see the clearest mental picture I can create using the fewest words possible. Why use cold when I can use frosty? Frosty creates a better picture (and feeling) in my reader’s mind.
Why publishers, agents, and editors have this rule:
- Publishers, agents, and editors like word-pictures too.
- Publishers, agents, and editors read tons of manuscripts a day. Imagine having to read through a slush pile of bland, boring adjectives such as big, pretty, small, and short all day long.
Think of writing like oatmeal: the original flavor is healthy, but adding apples, nutmeg, brown sugar, and raisins just makes it so much better. Give your publisher, editor, agent, and most of all, your readers, flavored oatmeal.
J. K. Rowling breaks this rule a few times just in the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (I've underlined the general words.)
- Mr. Dursley’s “big, beefy neck…”
- “…very large mustache…”
- “…very good mood…”
- “…large, tawny owl…”
- “…a lot of strangely dressed people”
- “Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old…”
Not only does Rowling use a few bland adjectives, but her use of a lot and verywould make most Language Arts teachers sneer like Professor Snape.
Why breaking this rule worked:
- Rowling uses so many other visual clues that her occasional use of bland adjectives doesn’t matter. Her entire first page is full of so much description and wonderful adjectives that she is allowed an occasional big and pretty. For instance, she begins by describing Dumbledore as, “Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old…” Left alone, the description would not form an adequate mental picture. I might think of my granddad, and other readers might think of Strom Thurmond. Rowling doesn’t leave us hanging, however. She adds “judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept to the ground, and high heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, right, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though hit had been broken at least twice.” Here, visual images abound. The tall, thin part was just setting us up.
- “Big, beefy neck” is an excellent example of alliteration. Beefy neck sounds great, but big, beefy neck has a much better rhythm.
- “A lot of strangely dressed people” works because of her next sentence: “People in cloaks.”Yes, I realize that is not a sentence. Fiction writers are allowed a few of those, however. Like the Dumbledore description, "strangely dressed people" is setting us up, kind of warning us that something odd is about to follow.
What this tells us about the craft of writing:Word pictures trump vocabulary. Often we writers agonize over finding the perfect word and forget to create the actual word picture. I could say, "the elderly woman" rather than "the old woman," and claim that was give you a better mental image because I used a more specific adjective. However, if I say, "The old woman pointed a twisted finger at the forest," I've given you a better word picture than "the elderly woman," havent I? And I used the general adjective, old. Rowling doesn’t use difficult words, but she forms a picture in our minds. Doubt me? Read the section about Honeydukes and tell me if your mouth waters.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog on never using adverbs.
*For those of you interested in writing children's or Young Adult Literature, please check out the Institute for Children’s Literature. They gave me my start, and I highly reccomend them.
This post is part of a mini-series of posts. Click below to read previous posts in the series.
- On Writing: How to Break the Rules & Get Away With It!
- On Writing: How to Break the "Kill the Narrator Rule" & Get Away With It!
- On Writing: How to Break the "Eliminate Passive Voice Rule" & Get Away With It!
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, which is being adapted into a graphic novel series by Wandering Sage Publications, Inc. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.