Just How Big Was It? — Using Adjectives


by Belinda Forgy

We all know an adjective is used to describe a noun and I don’t want to turn this into an English lesson, but I do want to emphasize how important the use of adjectives are in a story. Descriptive words are what paints the picture in your reader’s mind. You want them to see and hear and feel your story as if they were watching it on the big screen. The hard part is coming up with new and different words so you’re not repetitive. I’ve read many manuscripts where an adjective is used over and over…

“The big dog looked down from his big doghouse and saw how big the yard was! Would he ever be able to escape such a big prison? It was just so big!”

Yes, I exaggerate! But I do have a list of common items I check for in every manuscript I read and the number of times a word is used is one of them. I do a lot of work on thesaurus.com trying to find just the perfect word that could be used in place of the one that is overworked. I like the site because it gives a list of synonyms based on the meaning you’re trying to convey. So, for big, if you’re trying to imply extremely large, you can use colossal, giant, gigantic, mammoth or, in the case of our dog above, monstrous. If big is meant to convey vast, you might use ample, sizable or substantial. A limitless big could be global, immense or cosmic.

“The monstrous dog looked down from his humongous doghouse and saw how vast the yard was! Would he ever be able to escape such an astronomical prison? It was just so immense!”

In addition to being a bit exaggerated, this paragraph reads a little rough because it’s too beefed up with adjectives. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” He basically means there are better ways to say it than to always use a modifier. A monstrous dog could be a Mastiff or English Bulldog and if he’s big, his doghouse has to be, so why describe it at all?

“The Mastiff looked down from atop his doghouse and marveled at the expanse of yard. Could he navigate a proper escape without help?”

I really feel that the same principles apply to adverbs. If you can’t think of a better way to say it, try thesaurus.com or some other writing resource, and if that doesn’t work, leave it to your editor!

So, just how important is an adjective? Well, according to thesaurus.com, it’s critical, crucial, essential, imperative, necessary, paramount, significant… you get the picture!

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