Majestic and magnificent

In my first job as a junior copywriter, my boss kept a shared spreadsheet of words that our team was forbidden to use in any piece of writing. The no-go list was made up mostly of adjectives, and it went something like this:

  • Majestic
  • Magnificent
  • A stone’s throw away
  • Azure
  • Absolutely
  • Immaculate
  • Incredible
  • Amazing
  • Shimmering
  • Picturesque

What made this a real challenge at the time was that we were writing sales descriptions for luxury Cape Town rental properties targeted to foreign tourists. With that in mind, go back to the list above and try avoiding any of these words when describing, say, an immaculate property in the incredible suburb of Camps Bay, where you wake up to the shimmering Atlantic a stone’s throw away from you, and with majestic Table Mountain as your backdrop. Exactly.

To this day, I’ve kept this list in my head. It’s not that I hate these words. It’s more that they’re a reminder to avoid words that don’t leave space for the reader’s imagination. To me, clichés put one’s brain onto autopilot. When this happens, the reader’s inclination to evoke original images in their own mind of what’s being described on the page is shut down.

On the other hand, using words as conceptual pointers rather than absolute descriptors is a bit like producing a rough charcoal drawing. It’s descriptive, but it also leaves space for the viewer to see movement and depth beyond the surface. To stimulate a reader’s imagination with your words is to give them an emotional connection to what you’ve written – which means they’re far likelier to remember what you’ve said.

So how about this. There’s a house in Camps Bay. It has smooth white walls that reflect the summer light in a way that makes you feel instantly relaxed. The house pokes up out of the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, and if you wake up here early enough and step onto your balcony, the sea air will curl lazily into your nostrils. You’re so high up that you’ll feel like you can jump straight off into the sheet of blue below you. On the other side of the house, the windows are oversized, framing the Twelve Apostles so perfectly that from inside, it looks like you’re pondering a series of very realistic mountain paintings. And so it goes on. Do you get the picture?

This isn’t the only way to write, obviously. But for me, keeping sentences simple and avoiding overused words keeps a sense of space. It keeps the object that’s being described freshly minted for the next person who stumbles across it, prompting them to daydream, if only for a second or two.

Black Mountain
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