How to Use Adjectives Effectively

What Is an Adjective?
An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or pronoun. Often called describing words, adjectives provide information like how many, which size, or what color. Proper nouns can also be used as adjectives, as in the phrases Broadway play and Canadian dollar. These are called, appropriately, proper adjectives. Additionally, articles (a, an, and the) are also adjectives.

Proper Use of Adjectives
Although adjectives typically precede the noun or pronoun that they modify, in some cases they should instead follow the noun or pronoun. Most commonly, the latter occurs when the adjective functions as an appositive (the tree, old and gnarly, stood alone), modifies a pronoun usually followed by an adjective (anything sweet or nothing important), or follows a linking verb (the child is happy or this soup tastes delicious).

Things can get tricky when multiple adjectives modify the same noun or pronoun. In this situation, it is important to determine whether the describing words are coordinate adjectives:

  • Coordinate adjectives: modify the same noun (small, thorny bush)
  • Not coordinate adjectives: one modifies the noun, and another modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the first adjective and the noun (tall oak tree)

Notice that coordinate adjectives should be separated by a comma or and. In fact, if you’re not sure whether two or more adjectives are coordinate, try placing and between them—if it fits, they are coordinate adjectives. Using the examples above, small and thorny bush makes sense, but tall and oak tree does not; thus, the first phrase requires a comma (or and).

When a phrase functions as a unit to modify a noun, this is called a phrasal adjective or compound modifier. Similar to commas with coordinate adjectives, here you need to know whether to hyphenate. A phrasal adjective preceding a noun should typically be hyphenated unless it begins with an -ly adverb (sharply worded rebuttal), but if it follows the noun, it should remain open. However, the intended meaning needs to be taken into consideration as well. A small animal hospital, for instance, is not necessarily the same thing as a small-animal hospital: the first is an animal hospital that is small, while the second is an animal hospital that caters to small animals.

Sparingly and Carefully
While adjectives often enhance writing, too many can make the text feel clunky. A good rule of thumb is to use them sparingly and choose them carefully. Watch especially for adjectives that are redundant, vague, or flowery, as in the following examples:

  • small speck
    (a speck is, by definition, small)
  • happy, laughing baby
    (if the baby is laughing, it is probably happy)
  • tall building
    (use skyscraper or __-story building, or have a character nearly fall over backward trying to see the top) 
  • a bright, shimmering, rosy sunrise over the sparkling, undulating water
    (try something more like the shimmering waves reflected the rosy sunrise)

That said, don’t be afraid to use adjectives! They often lend clarity to writing and can help paint a vivid picture for readers. You want dressing on your salad; you just don’t want to drown the veggies.

Productivity Tip: Work Sprints

Most productivity methods I’ve tried haven’t worked for me—rewards (if I edit ten pages, I can have a cookie. . . or I could just eat one now), blocking distracting websites (I always manage to find one that I haven’t blocked), strict schedules, detailed goals, and so on. Given that, I’ll begin with a disclaimer: this technique might not work for you, and that’s okay. Keep experimenting until you find one that does. But this method often helps keep me on track and off social media.

So what is it? Called work sprints or the Pomodoro Technique, this method involves working for a set period of time and then taking a short break. While some people prefer to use an app, all you really need is a timer and a to-do list.

First, decide how long you want your work sessions to be. They can last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour, but I recommend staying within the twenty- to thirty-minute range. You also want to define a length for your breaks, ideally two to five minutes—just enough time to stretch and refill your water glass. The Pomodoro Technique specifies twenty-five-minute work sessions and five-minute breaks, but play around with it and see what works best for you.

Next, choose what you want to accomplish during each session. I usually use this technique for editing, so I simply edit for twenty-five minutes and see how much I can get done. Another option is to divide up your to-do list into tasks that fit your chosen session length. For example, if I want to publish a blog post using this technique, I might split it into three sessions: research and outlining, writing, and adding images and proofreading.

Of course, you don’t want to go all day with only three-minute breaks. Every few sessions, take a longer break of fifteen to thirty minutes. I like to have three long breaks per day—midmorning, lunch, and midafternoon—so one after every three sessions works pretty well. If you choose to use an app, it may track your sessions and alert you when it’s time for a long break. Otherwise, simply mark an X or checkmark at the bottom of your to-do list each time you complete a session.

It's important not to become discouraged if you end up with an awkward slot of time or are interrupted in the middle of a work session. Use those twelve minutes between your previous session and that meeting you have scheduled to respond to work emails. And if you have to dash away from your computer to chase a groundhog off the front porch before it eats your plants (true story), just pick up where you left off and keep going.

What Are the Different Types of Editing?

So you’ve written a manuscript—now what?

Distinguishing between types of editing can be difficult and confusing. Not only is there the order to be concerned with, but the lines between the levels can become blurry, and sometimes a single type of editing can be referred to by multiple names.

Here is a quick guide to help you decipher the next steps for your manuscript.

1. Self-Editing

Before you hand your manuscript over to be professionally edited, make some revisions on your own. Turn a critical eye to things like plot and structure as well as word usage and punctuation. Look for sections that don’t make sense, occur out of order, feel too fast or slow, or should simply be removed. You may end up going through several drafts before a professional ever sees your manuscript. Once you’ve made all your revisions, run spell-check.

What this edit is not: Self-editing does not replace professional editing—even professional editors need other editors to look at their writing.

2. Developmental Editing

This is big-picture thinking. A developmental editor looks at the manuscript as a whole and offers feedback on plot, structure, pacing, characterization, style, and tone. Because major rewriting and reorganization can happen at this stage, this level of edit should happen first (after self-editing, of course).

What this edit is not: Developmental editing does not involve sentence-level edits such as fixing punctuation, grammar, or spelling.

3. Line Editing

Also called substantive editing, line editing looks at organization on a closer level. It involves rewriting to avoid ambiguity, tightening loosely written sections, improving the flow of sentences and paragraphs, and revising repetition and inconsistencies. This is where things get a bit blurry. Some editors include copyediting as part of the line editing process, and similarly, a heavy copyedit can sometimes look a lot like a light line edit.

What this edit is not: A line edit is not a developmental edit; it does not include feedback on plot or overall structure.

4. Copyediting

A copyeditor zooms in even further, examining each word and punctuation mark. This stage involves correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other mechanical errors as well as things like indentation and spacing, word usage, and deviations from the style guide. Editors often offer multiple levels of copyediting, ranging from simply correcting errors to offering suggestions for wordy or awkward passages.
What this edit is not: A copyedit does not include fact-checking, so it is advisable to confirm all facts before this stage.

5. Proofreading

Proofreading is the very last edit before your manuscript is published. At this level, the editor is simply looking for errors that slipped through or were introduced during earlier stages of revision and layout. This is often done on printed page proofs or a pdf so that the editor is looking at the manuscript as it will appear in its final form, though it can also be done in a word processor, especially if the text is intended for a website or other nonbook form.

What this edit is not: Proofreading should not be the only level of editing done on a manuscript; it should occur after multiple other rounds of edits as a form of quality control.

Putting It All Together

To reach its full potential, your manuscript needs to go through all five levels of editing in the order outlined above. Of course, since some of them overlap, the editing process can be slightly condensed. For example, I offer multiple levels of copyediting, and the heaviest copyedit looks a bit like a line edit/copyedit combo. Click here for more information on my editing services.