Monday, July 11, 2011

Life Sucking Modifiers—Don’t Kill Your Copy (or your prose) with Adjectives and Adverbs

Don't kill your copy (or your prose) with adjectives and adverbs

The goal of almost any writer is to write—and write well. The first part is simple to understand and apply. All it requires is a little time and discipline. (Okay, I said simple . . . NOT easy. But that’s a post for another time) The second part is truly hard—mainly because there are so many definitions of what good writing is.

Let’s start with what good writing isn’t
  • It isn’t flowery or verbose.
  • It doesn’t attempt to prove the author’s intelligence by requiring a dictionary to read. (see previous point).

Simply put, good writing conveys the author’s intent clearly and concisely.

This means sentences full of adjectives and adverbs are a good writer’s enemy. It’s always better to use specific nouns and active verbs rather than rely on modifiers to convey your meaning. Let me show you what I mean.

Not: Stuart walked quickly across the yard.
Instead: Stuart darted across the yard.

Do you see how walked quickly is a poor choice? It’s much harder to visualize because it’s not specific. Darted is a much more visual choice.

But what about adjectives—don’t those add depth to writing? Only when used with care.

Not: The pale purple petals released their sickly sweet odor causing her over-active stomach to heave in revolt.
Instead: Lavender hyacinths added their odor to her already reeling senses.

This example may seem over the top, but I assure you it isn’t. I’ve edited hundreds of articles, devotions and manuscripts filled with enough excess verbiage to fill a swimming pool.

boring writing
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t describe things, only that your descriptions should be tight. You want to provide enough information for the reader to get what you’re saying without boring them. Anytime a reader scans or skips over something there’s an issue.

So what can you do to help tighten up your writing?

First, be on the lookout for passive verbs. These encourage the use of adverbs.
SPECIAL NOTE: The verb was isn’t always passive tense—sometimes it’s past tense.
Second, double check your nouns—are they general, like walk or run? If so, choose a more specific word.
Finally, practice your craft. There’s never a good substitution for actually doing the work.

Now I'd like to learn from  you. Have you encountered writing that overflows with adjectives and adverbs? Share some examples of either good or bad writing. 

Don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. So succinct, Edie. Your graphic was a bit alarming to look at first thing n the morning (LOL) but the article was spot-on!

  2. Thanks for this post! I always forget to write accurately.

  3. Yes, Edie, your graphic is a bit alarming! With that being said, I told all of my professors that would listen that the problem with philosopher dudes is that they make the simple truths sound overly complicated. That rings true for your subject today too.

  4. Edie, this is timely. I'm going back over my WIP for a newspaper and check those nouns! Thanks

  5. Beth, sorry about the graphic - I didn't think about it's impact first thing in the morning! LOL
    Ashley, we all forget that! One of the most common comments from my critique group is to remind me that the reader doesn't live in my head and needs a little more info.
    Laurie, I'm always so glad to read your comments. I hope I get to see you this week at the UFCW meetings
    Karen, this post is timely because we all need this reminder.
    Blessings All - E