Nouns, Adjectives, Mark Twain, and Lightning Bugs

Fireflies in the night forest. Image courtesy of

If you need to have three adjectives to describe a noun, you’ve got the wrong noun.

“Into a noun, you can pack almost an entire life: the meaning of the thing itself, the thing itself. It makes tighter writing and much more powerful writing. Find your noun—verbs too, but find that noun–and you would hardly need any adjectives.

“You know Mark Twain’s dictum, ‘the difference between the word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning?’ The adjective is the lightning bug.”

Roger Rosenblatt, essayist, playwright, novelist, and author of Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. In conversation with Alan Alda, in a Clear&Vivid podcast titled “A Writer on Writing.”

OK, fellow writers and ardent readers: Have at it. What do you think?


23 thoughts on “Nouns, Adjectives, Mark Twain, and Lightning Bugs

  1. Hi there, Annie. Over the last few years I’ve read that it’s not good to use too many adjectives. And I think I’ve heard the same about adverbs. I wonder if any of this is good advice for people who take writing seriously. Maybe in general. But I’d bet that there are and have been many quality writers who use plenty of both.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Neil. Thanks. I suspect you’re right: could be an artificial hindrance for a talented writer. I think it’s an interesting thought to ponder, though—and perhaps to consider when crafting sentences.

      You mentioned adverbs. I, myself, have a penchant for writing “veryveryvery” on occasion. But I consider it one word, so maybe I’m safe.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Well, well. I guess I agree that the tighter the language, the more impact. Less clutter, more punch. But it’s also not that simple. You need to something to say. That connects with the reader. That carries more import than the actual words if you expect your message or art to linger in the minds of readers . . . Then there are issues of clarity, voice, tone, resonance . . . . It’s hard work, these sentences. Would that it was as simple as nailing that noun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I like all of that, Denise. In fairness to Rosenblatt, who’s written and lectured extensively on writing, he was responding to a specific question that Alda posed, after rereading the book I mentioned, concerning his feelings re: nouns and adjectives. He’d never boil everything down the way I did here.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In general it’s better to be concise than too wordy, but I don’t think good writing is universally reducible to such simple rules. There’s no substitute for having an intuitive feel for one’s language.

    I flipped through my copy of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, an acknowledged master of literature, and didn’t have much difficulty finding these — first a description of a destroyed African village:

    “And the village was deserted, the huts gaped black, rotting, all askew within the fallen enclosures. A calamity had come to it, sure enough.”

    Note the three adjectives describing the huts (my italics). Second, this majestic parade of no fewer than eight adjectives describing a humble stretch of coast:

    “I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you — smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out.”

    I really don’t think Conrad had his nouns wrong.

    When I proofread my own work I often find myself removing a lot of adverbs, but that’s because they’re mostly words that add vagueness or timidity — “probably”, “rather”, “somewhat”, things like that. In many cases the meaning they add is either implied by context or not necessary at all.

    Our language has a rich palette of resources to convey meaning and emotion. The writer should feel free to call upon all of them, adjectives included. There are better and worse ways to use them, but all are worthy to be used as the art inspires.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Infidel, for providing a thoughtful, evidence-based, convincing response! I wonder what Rosenblatt’s reaction would be.

      I also like your characterization of your self-editing. I shall watch for adverbs that add “vagueness or timidity” to my own writing, as I know I use them on occasion, and your descriptors raised my awareness.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Last night AFTER I shut the computer off I thought of Dickens, always wordy…..and the contrast to Hemingway, always sparse….both good in different ways.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Good food for thought. I usually feel that I should think long and hard about all of the words I use. But then I tell myself that I’m far too slow and need to just wing it now and then. Hard to choose the perfect formula.

    Liked by 2 people

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