Better living through adjectives
July 14, 2011
A while ago, in an attempt to learn how to write better, I bought this book: Will Write for Food, by Dianne Jacob. The book talks about all kinds of food writing, how to improve it, how to make a career out of it, and how to increase influence and readership. Useful book overall.
I read the book pretty quickly and decided that I would naturally remember the bits that interested me, and I’d leave the rest for some other time. One thing that Jacob pointed out is that a lot of food writers - in every medium - use words like this to describe food:
There’s nothing wrong with using one of these adjectives to describe something, it’s a natural thing to do and it allows the writer to give a quick, vague impression and move on. I mean, I seem to do it all the time.
But what does describing something as interesting really do for the reader? Or as delicious? You communicate something, but there’s immense missed opportunity for a description that conveys more information, and that is in some ways more objective (tell the reader that something was “lemony” and let them form their own conclusions as to whether they think it’d be good). Your reader gets a less clear picture of what you’re describing - whether it’s food or any other experience - and it lets you off the hook a little bit, too, which isn’t always appropriate.
As one example, being able to use specific adjectives (accurately, of course) is what separates good wine tasters from others. It’s so characteristic of influential people in the wine world that the typical parody of a wine snob is to string a bunch of weird adjectives onto the a simple description, e.g.
Shows some rustic but second-rate Barbera. Forcefully bites you with garlic, over-ripe pineapple and bashful thyme. Drink now through Friday.
(From the unsettlingly on-point Silly Tasting Notes Generator.) This is a randomly-generated description of a wine that I hope doesn’t exist, but you can imagine it anyway. I especially like the idea of “bashful thyme”.
The result of avoiding generic adjectives is better quality writing, but that’s actually not why I am writing about this. I think the more important result is that by being more specific, you refine your own understanding.
For example, I went go-karting a few weeks ago. It was definitely awesome. But why? Well, I guess if I think about it, it was kind of scary, and demanding, and something I wouldn’t normally get to do. So I suppose those things, in the right circumstance, constitute a good experience for me.
When I think about web development projects I’ve worked on, I can describe writing a credit card payment system as complex, difficult, and important - I liked that project and maybe I’ll like other ones with similar attributes. On the other hand, tweaking CSS for Internet Explorer 6 is tedious, inconsequential, and mind-numbing.
Peaches are in season now, and I had a really good one just now. No, wait - I mean it was sweet, syrupy, fragrant and tangy, and it yielded easy to even a soft bite. OK, those are all attributes of a good peach. Useful to know if you are considering pairing it with vanilla ice cream (also sweet and fragrant; creamy) or raspberries (tart, bright, a little dry).