Block That Adjective!
by Alexander McCall Smith
My bête noire—and there is nothing wrong with using the occasional French expression, although one does not want to sound too much like a menu—is overwriting. Something is overwritten when there is just too much of it. This may be because the writer has laboured the point and made a mountain out of a molehill, or because too many words are used. As a result, descriptions are cluttered and the prose quickly becomes unreadable. There is a lot of it about.
The problem is that we speak English. Some languages, such as English or Spanish, have immensely rich vocabularies: If we want to describe something in English, we have a wide choice of words at our disposal and can say what we want to say in many different ways. The problem does not occur if one is writing in, say, Melanesian Pidgin, where rather few words are at your disposal and most of them are pithy in the extreme.
For some people, being able to use all these words is rather like being faced with a chocolate box with multiple layers; the temptation to overindulge is just too great. The result is the use of too many adjectives, adverbs and subsidiary clauses. Such writing then begins to sound contrived. Nobody uses large numbers of adjectives when they think, and I believe that writing which one cannot actually think can very easily look wrong on the page.
The real aim, of course, is conciseness. Concise prose knows what it wants to say, and says it. It does not embellish, except occasionally, and then for dramatic effect. It is sparing in its use of metaphor. And it is certainly careful in its use of adjectives. Look at the King James Bible, that magnificent repository of English at the height of its beauty. The language used to describe the creation of the world is so simple, so direct. “Let there be light, and there was light.” That sentence has immense power precisely because there are no adjectives. If we fiddle about with it, we lose that. “Let there be light, and there was a sort of matutinal,* glowing phenomenon that slowly transfused, etc.” No, that doesn’t work.
There is a place for the adjective and for the descriptive passage, but these must be carefully handled. A piece of prose that had no adjectives would very quickly become sterile; so it really is a question of restraint. There is a psychological reason for this: If somebody sets out in great detail what is before us, we very quickly become bored. That is not the way we see the world; we look for salience, we look for the feature that will engage our interest. Think about how we describe a cityscape. We do not list and describe every building, we refer to one or two. Manhattan, for instance, can be conjured up with a description of the spire of the Chrysler building; the reader’s imagination can do the rest.
And therein lies the problem. The trouble with overwritten prose is that it takes away from the reader the opportunity to imagine a scene. We do not want to be told everything; we want a few brushstrokes, a few carefully chosen adjectives, and then we can do the rest ourselves. It’s Roget’s fault, of course. I blame him and his wretched thesaurus. Put it away.
* of or pertaining to morning; don’t use this word.
—Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 60 books, including the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series.