The Writing Wizard: The Arsenal of Adjectives

Posted by The Writing Wizard on 12/28/12, 12:46 PM

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Happy New Year from the Writing Wizard! Today’s short post will introduce you to an important concept for all sorts of writing projects: The Arsenal of Adjectives.

Don’t be put off by the intimidating title; you won’t need a background in military strategy or nuclear arms proliferation theory to master this simple idea: have lots and lots of precise descriptive adjectives at your disposal when you sit down to write.

In the kind of snappy, snazzy writing we see on blogs, in magazines, and across other major media, illustrative adjectives abound, directing our attention to the density of their description, and making everyday language seem sexy and fresh. 

The beauty of the high-impact modifier – what I like to call the “luscious adjective” – is that it packs a punch in a small package.  It is perfect for photo captions, sound-bites, and headlines.  But it also works wonders in block text.  Here’s why: without taking three lines and adding too many syllables or beats to your prose, the luscious adjective delivers a wallop, evoking the sensory contours of whatever it is you’re describing in a single word.  Think of it as an awesome condiment for your prose sandwich – a few shakes of Tabasco, perhaps, for your three-day-old tuna melt. 

The image is apt, because when we sit down to write admissions essays, term papers, lab reports, etc., we have a tendency to generate three-day-old tuna sandwiches—soggy, tired writing. We choke our prose with filler, adding adverbs to sound smarter and duplicating hackneyed descriptors instead of zeroing in on the smaller, spicier words we really need for zing and zest.  Here’s where the Arsenal of Adjectives comes in.

Just as a good cook has a full rack of spices and a fridge packed with sauces, condiments, glazes, and spreads, a good writer has a deep store of luscious adjectives, ready for deployment on the tuna sandwiches of the literary world.

Now, you might be questioning my choice of title, wondering: “If the Writing Wizard is just going to talk about food all day, why didn’t he call this trick the Spice Rack of Adjectives? The Condiment Aisle of Adjectives? The Salad Bar of Adjectives? What’s with this Arsenal business?” The answer demands some more metaphor, so bear with me. If we want to think of our writing as bold, we need to feel courageous as craftspeople, bravely confronting the task at hand with the precision and resolve of a warrior. Not so in the kitchen, where adding heat is admirable but not required. So although the food analogy is useful, it lacks the force of what good writers do every day: dramatically command attention in a vast sea of noise. Take Rachel Ray and multiply by Rambo, and you’ll get what good writers really are: flavor ninjas.

The first step in flavor ninja training is to radically expand your vocabulary, and learn the ins and outs of connotation and denotation. 

  • Buy a real dictionary and keep it close at hand. 
  • Buy a great thesaurus and learn how to use it quickly and effectively. 
  • Consider purchasing GRE and SAT-II flashcard sets for vocabulary building.
  • And most importantly, read. Read everything and anything that features rich, illustrative writing.  The more contact you have with great prose, the more sensitive you will become to style and voice. As you hone your writing, you’ll develop your storehouse of adjectives, collecting words that add sensory data to basic semantic information. 

The trick here is to learn and master the shades of meaning that similar adjectives convey—understanding how “luscious”, “juicy,” “lip-smacking,” “abundant”, and “flavorful” all do different descriptive work in a text, for example.  Ultimately, you should have four or five options at hand for every adjective you wish to use in your writing. Then, the art involves deciding which to apply to achieve the desired effect.

All good flavor ninjas work sedulously on expanding their Arsenals. So go forth, young grasshopper, and start building your own – it’s the recipe for delectable and dynamic prose.  

Tags: English, expository writing