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Recently, one of my online students asked if I could diagnose the problems that made her prose sound like the work of a “sophisticated fifth-grader.” The very fact that she used the phrase “sophisticated fifth-grader” demonstrated that she was farther along in her writing than she gave herself credit for. Nevertheless, the question got me to thinking about what exactly makes prose sound like the work of a sophisticated juvenile instead of the work of a sophisticated adult (or, better yet, the work of an adult who is freed from the need to sound sophisticated).
The first habit to come to mind was this: good but not-quite-mature writers often pile on adjectives and adverbs in an effort to make their prose more descriptive. It seems intuitive. After all, adjectives and adverbs exist for the express purpose of description: they modify nouns and verbs. True enough. But nouns and verbs are where the real action is. Your efforts are better spent finding the right nouns and verbs than adding descriptors to less precise verbs and nouns.
If you tell a sophisticated fifth-grader to depict a home-cooked meal as vividly as possible, he is liable to start marshalling adjectives. Delicious, savory, luscious. Hot, crispy fried chicken. Flaky, buttery biscuits with sweet, fruity jelly. Firm, steamy, succulent corn on the cob. Et cetera, et cetera. The result will be descriptive in its way, but juvenile.
Consider, by contrast the following passage from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, in which the narrator Jayber marvels at the fact that so many inhabitants of Port William adhere to a religion that scorns the goodness and beauty of the world in spite of the fact that they dearly love their good and beautiful world. This passage includes a description of the same meal that our fifth-grader began describing above. You will notice that there are adjectives in this very descriptive passage, but those adjectives don’t do the heavy lifting:
The people who listened to those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish.
Forgive the long quotation. It was too good to abridge. As I suggested before, Wendell Berry doesn’t avoid adjectives altogether, but the adjectives in this passage are very straightforward: prettiest, dark, good, fried, creamed, hot, unconsecrated. The descriptive power in this passage doesn’t come from adjectives and certainly not adverbs. Where does it come from, then? Mostly from nouns. And even the nouns aren’t exciting in themselves: crops, gardens, livestock, shade, laughter, music, thigh to thigh, yearning, joy, beauty, potatoes, peas, biscuits. They may not be exciting, but they are precise, and taken together they depict the superabundance of the world where we live and move and have our being. As the above passage shows, a simple list of nouns can have tremendous descriptive power.
I should also point out that for all my harping on the importance of sticking to the concrete, I love the way Berry places abstract nouns cheek-by-jowl with those lovely concrete nouns, reminding us that yearning and joy and beauty are just as real as livestock and wild raspberries and buttermilk.
If that passage from Jayber Crow shows how a list of nouns can carry the freight in a highly descriptive passage, I want to show you one more descriptive passage that relies more on verbs than nouns. This one is by an online student from a few years ago. Again, note that, while there are adjectives, they don’t bear the load:
My brother Tim was the only boy and a revelation to all of us. He ate tempera paint, sucking it straight from the brush. He climbed onto the dining room table and jumped off of it, as high as he could, over and over and over, while our middle sister Rachel and I tried to do schoolwork. He fell into the water feature at the Botanical Gardens. He sometimes played so hard that he threw up in the grass, and then went right back to playing.
Tim is sucking paint, jumping off the dining room table, falling into the water fountain, throwing up, going right back to his play. The relentless movement in this short passage mimics the relentless movement of the little boy. That is powerful description.
I love showing this passage to writers because it demonstrates that you don’t have to be a genius to write excellent description. The writer succeeds here because she took the time to envision her little brother Tim. Then, after she had that vision fixed, she went looking for the words (in this case, mostly verbs) that best depict that vision. This is just straight-ahead, workmanlike writing, and the result is fantastic.
I’m not suggesting that you eliminate adjectives and adverbs from your prose. Those parts of speech exist because they are exceedingly useful [exceedingly(adv) useful (adj)]. Just don’t overestimate their value relative to nouns and verbs when you’re trying to dial up the description in your writing.