One of the traditions at my house is baking cookies at Christmas. Both my kids love participating in the process, and I love watching them dig in and have fun. By far their favorite cookie to make is the sugar cookie. The mixing, rolling, cutting, and decorating appeal both to a sense of dependable structure and wild creativity. While I encouraged their creative bent, I always shook my head over the cookies they chose to over-decorate. You know the ones–cookies thick with bright green icing and heaped with every sugar sprinkle in the cabinet. No matter how much fun the kids had in making those special cookies, I will admit that I could never stomach eating one. I love sugar as much as anyone, but this is one instance where less is definitely more.
Learning to write can mirror the cookie decorating process. Most teachers strive to encourage their students’ creativity as much as possible. Early writing instruction includes a constant nudge to use adjectives (words that modify nouns) and adverbs (words that modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) to enhance description. Not that there is anything wrong with revising the sentence, “The dog howls at the moon” to read, “The big black dog howls mournfully at the bright moon.” The problem arises when we so ingrain the use of descriptors that the students’ writing becomes littered with them.
Many novice writers make the mistake of using descriptors to decorate their writing the way my kids used sugar sprinkles to decorate a cookie. They believe that the extra flair accentuates their creativity, when often it only highlights a glaring misconception. What they need to learn is that strong, vivid writing is accomplished with nouns and verbs, not their descriptors.
Take a look at the following excerpt from Tamera Alexander’s novel From a Distance:
“A chill fingered its way past her woolen coat, into her shirtwaist, and through the cotton chemise that lay beneath. She pulled the coat closer about her chest and viewed the seamless river and valley carved far below, the mountains heaved up and ragged, draped in brilliant dawn to the limits of sight. She peered down to where the earth ended abruptly at the tips of her boots and the canyon plunged to breathtaking depths.”
Notice the strength of the italicized verbs: fingered, carved, peered, plunged. Each one is descriptive in its own right, giving the reader a clear picture of the scene, so there is little need to add embellishments. Also note that the author does make use of adjectives and adverbs—seamless, ragged, brilliant, abruptly, breathtaking—but they accessorize the scene instead of monopolize it.
The key to good writing is balance, and acquiring that skill requires not only recognizing the basic parts of a sentence, but also understanding how those parts work best together. The end result is the perfect combination of creativity and artistry—a delicious treat for any reader.