Kill the Adjective- 3 Reasons to Make Your Descriptions as Action-Packed as Your Plays


Gwydion, this one’s for YOU.

Recently, after having pored through a stack of theater brochures that hit my inbox, I put out a whimsical challenge to the #2amt twitter community:

Describe your next project in 140 characters without using a single adjective.

Gwydion remarked that he LIKED adjectives, and wasn’t sure eliminating them would make for stronger play descriptions. A fair point, and I like adjectives too. But today I would like to take a moment to make a case for why they should DIE… or at least be used as a very occasional spice rather than a main course.

Here’s the thing. We have probably all, when staring at a blank page and tasked with describing the next show to hit our stage (or to tumble out of our typewriter), resorted to a description that looked something like this:

Hamlet is a brooding, classic tale of a haunted prince whose life takes a horrifying turn when his regal but doomed mother shacks up with his conniving manipulative uncle… and tragedy of epic proportions ensues. Exhilarating, dramatic, and breathlessly intriguing, ABC Theatre Company’s intimate production of The Bard’s quintessential tragedy explores the horrifying consequences of indecisiveness in the face of epic events.

Okay, maybe you’ve never written anything quite so appalling. I certainly have. There are three kinds of bad behavior happening here, all of which are caused by over-reliance on saucy adjectives to do our descriptive heavy lifting.

1. Limp verbs. By spending our rhetorical energy saying how connivingly manipulative and regally doomed the characters are, we haven’t actually said what they DO. And in order to support that string of fancy descriptors we’ve had to use limp, useless verbs like “is” and “takes” and cliches like “explores.”

Which is a shame, because, when people ask what a play is about, they almost always ask “So, what happens ?” They hardly EVER ask, “So, what kind of people are in this play?”

These lovely vivid adjectives force all the action out of the verbs and into the static picture frame of character description. As my 9th grade english teacher used to say… every adjective is really a verb waiting to be put into action. So Claudius should “connive,” not be “conniving” and by “conniving,” Claudius then “dooms” Gertrude to horrors. Same underlying meaning, only now we see what they DO rather than how the ARE, clarifying the picture while simultaneously driving it forward, into action.

And speaking of 9th grade…

2. Your Audience Do Not Have Post-Grad Degrees. Well, some of them do, I’m guessing. But this pile of semantically impressive adjectives have helped push the “Flesh-Kincaid Reading Level” of this description up to a whopping Grade Level 18 (meaning the person most likely to understand every word of it probably has 18 years of formal schooling… a post-grad degree). As a young marketing director, I once had my own parents (college graduates both) pull me aside and  admit to me that they didn’t really understand about half the copy in my company’s most recent brochure. It was hard to read, they explained …too… “wordy.”

Wonder why performing arts audiences tend to have a disproportionately large percentage of  post-graduate degrees compared to the general public? Maybe it’s because they’re the only ones who can understand our marketing materials. Yes, we all laughed when it was pointed out that George W. Bush’s speeches averaged a 5th grade reading level, but perhaps there’s a happy middle ground?

As writers and marketing folk, we tend to be word people, by definition. And we are extremely well versed in the jargon of our industry… to the point that we often forget that it is jargon. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that much of the potential audience that might LOVE our work are picture people, or action people or feeling people, rather than word people.  And the research suggests that keeping the reading level of your marketing descriptions below the college graduate level makes them more accessible, and therefore more interesting, to the average non- “word-person” reader.

3. You Don’t Get To Decide How Good It is. Your Audience Does. There’s a certain number of adjectives that end up in our descriptive copy because we are afraid the reader won’t get how “GOOD” it is unless we tell them explicitly. So we throw in a string of heart-thumping adjectives… “exhilarating” “dramatic” “intimate” production of the “world’s greatest” play. I like to call these bits the “artistic director appeasement clause.” They often end up in your copy because, after crafting a clear and compelling description of what happens in the show, there will often be someone (frequently a director or artistic director) who will express a worry that the audience won’t know how GOOD it is unless you spell it out for them.

Here’s the problem. In today’s advertising and media soaked culture, your audience is warier than ever of self-congratulatory or self-aggrandizing copy. You call yourself “exhilarating” and they smell a rat. A rat made out of flowery unsubstantiated claims of quality. Ironically, in your attempt to assure them how “good” it will be, you’ve actually made them more skeptical of the potential quality of the work. So unless you can actually quote an independent third party, i.e.  “In a production the World Weekly News calls ‘exhilarating and intriguing’ ABC Theater Company  dives deep beneath surface of…” it will serve you better to focus on making “exhilarating” copy rather than convincing them the show itself is “exhilarating”… just because you say so.

Even better, consider letting go of your reliance on the safe, anonymous 3rd person altogether and appeal directly to your audience in the 2nd person. Don’t tell them the play is exhilarating. Invite them to “come and be exhilarated by one man’s fight against….yada yada.” You get the picture.

Answer the question “what’s in it for me?” by helping them see how attending the performance will make them feel. What they will experience, not only through their eyes, but right there in their chair, down to the tingling tips of their little pinky toes.

I recently saw a campaign for a Queensland Ballet Company whose tagline was, “Need a Lift?”

Accompanying the tagline were startling images of dancers defying gravity with their partners. The image spoke volumes about the technical excellence and boundary-pushing nature of the performance. But the tagline shot straight to the heart of an audience member’s experience- inviting them to come away from an evening of ballet with spirits, mind and heart lifted. Now THAT’s exhilarating.

So am I arguing that you should literally cut every adjective you ever use?

Of course not. The sheer number of adjectives in this post would make me a hypocrite if I were.

But the next time you sit down to describe a show, consider taking your first draft and X-ing out every single adjective you’ve thrown in there. Is the copy that’s left active? Does it help the audience member feel what the experience will be like? Does it’s answer the question “So, What Happens?” Does it compel you to find out more about the show?

Then take a look at the adjectives you’ve discarded. Can some of them work harder for you as verbs or adverbs? Can the nouns you use be more precise, requiring fewer adjectives to make your meaning clear? Can your “qualitative”  adjectives be justified with a quote from a reputable source? And how many of them really add to the fundamental understanding of what happens in the show? How many of them make the show feel “worth seeing?” And how many are just proving the excellent quality of your own liberal arts education?

Make your adjectives EARN their place in  your descriptive copy. The ones that survive will be worth it. The ones that don’t won’t be missed. Trust me.

  • November 2, 2010
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