By Aimee Lucido
In the immortal words of Mark Twain, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” Maybe that’s an overstatement, but the abundance of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) is a red flag of amateur writing.
There are all sorts of ways to misuse modifiers. So many, in fact, that the first draft of this blog post was nearly 2000 words long. But I trimmed the fat, and now I’m going to talk about another way to trim the fat: minimizing modifiers. Here are two ways to cut out modifiers in your writing.
1) Run-On Adjectives
Run-on adjectives appear when a writer is struggling to describe something, and compensates by piling adjectives on top of adjectives, hoping at least one of them will stick. Sometimes these adjectives are redundant:
I’ve always despised long, flowery, overwrought prose.
And other times they give us too much information at once:
Annabelle ran her fingers through her long, brown, stick-straight hair.
Redundant run-ons always feel greedy to me. We shouldn’t hog all the adjectives, we should just choose our favorite and run with it:
I’ve always despised flowery prose.
Info-dump run-ons don’t give the reader enough time to let all the descriptors stick. Instead of cramming three adjectives in one sentence to describe Annabelle’s hair, we should take time and show what Annabelle’s hair looks like instead of telling.
Annabelle sat in front of her mirror as she brushed her hair. Not that her hair needed brushing. It was so straight that it never tangled, even though it reached past her waist. But she liked brushing it anyway because the light coming in from the window gave her brown hair honey highlights that all her sisters envied.
Every adjective we add is a break from the story. We’re pausing the flow of the narrative to give a descriptor, which is fine if the descriptor is essential, but distracting otherwise. Removing run-on adjectives makes our sentences lean and intentional.
2) The Band-Aid Adverb
Band-Aid adverbs are used to cover up a weak verb in a sentence. Words like “went” or “said” are not words that we try to fit into our story. They’re words that help us get from point A to point B. So when we find ourselves using “said” over and over again, we spice it up.
Let’s say we start with the following sentence:
“I don’t like him,” Sandra said to Kathy.
This sentence is boring, so, our first instinct as writers is to try and make it more interesting. If we aren’t thinking, we might do something like this:
“I don’t like him,” Sandra said quietly to Kathy.
This is an improvement, for sure, because now we get a tone of voice. But “said quietly” isn’t the best we can do. Instead of using a weak verb and a Band-Aid adverb, why don’t we just use a stronger verb?
“I don’t like him,” Sandra murmured to Kathy.
“Murmured” makes me think of Sandra croaking, maybe even crying.
“I don’t like him,” Sandra mumbled to Kathy.
“Mumbled” makes me think of someone who is shy and embarrassed.
“I don’t like him,” Sandra whispered to Kathy.
“Whispered” makes me think of little girls at their desks gossiping about the kids in their class. Even if Sandra and Kathy aren’t little kids, the image of them passing notes can be powerful.
Choosing a verb is a decision. It’s committing to a specific image and tone, and not just any word that gets the job done. Sure, all four of these sentences say essentially the same thing, but the imagery in each is different. And imagery is what writing is all about.
For more information on different ways to misuse modifiers, check out this article by William Noble, Don’t Use Adjectives and Adverbs to Prettify Your Prose.
We don’t want to cut out modifiers all together, but we don’t want to be greedy or lazy with how we use them. Modifiers are like salt. Too much and it’s all we can taste. But used sparingly, the dish will dance.