Voltaire, historian, philosopher and designer of doors (see my earlier post) was no slouch as an author either, his satirical novel Candide, which charts the passage from optimism to disillusionment, vying for attention with other literary and philosophical masterpieces. He was also French, which to my mind suggests style, pure and simple. For all these reasons it is worth paying attention to what he has to say about writing:
The adjective is the enemy of the noun.
There. A perfect example of clarity and directness, qualities we should aspire to in our work. For the sake of absolute clarity, it’s worth mentioning that a noun is an object and an adjective is a word which describes it: the red (adjective) house (noun). You’d expect the two of them to work together in harmony and often they do. Prose without any description at all would provide thin pickings, but to extend the food analogy a little, too much of it is like bad cholesterol: it clogs up the arteries of your narrative. You need to use it in moderation.
Here are some pitfalls to avoid when writing descriptively.
- If you use adjectives with abandon, the weight of unnecessary words becomes a burden and will slow your story down.
- If using adjectives becomes your default setting and all you ever write is adjective / noun, adjective / noun, adjective / noun (the tall house, the deep sea, the little baby) the rhythm of your writing becomes predictable, which means that the attention of your reader will start to wander.
- Factual accuracy is important in your work, but literary accuracy is vital too. The reason that adjectives are the enemies of nouns is not just that they swamp them, they also suggest a fundamental inaccuracy in the noun itself. Instead of saying tall building, say mansion, or skyscraper, or brownstone. For deep sea you could substitute ocean; for little baby, infant.
It’s a kind of distillation: the heat of creativity leading to the essence of truth.
And here he is – the man himself, surveying the grounds of the château at Cirey en Blaise where he lived for many years.
Pared down, as you might expect, to the minimum.