Writing: Weeding Out Modifiers

Did your schoolteachers urge you to “write descriptively? If so, you may think adjectives and adverbs (aka modifiers) are the backbone of effective writing. But wait! Weed out modifiers to make your work stronger and more compelling.

Writing Tip for Today: How does effective writing use modifiers?

Descriptive Dullness

When you learned about writing, you may have been told that to be descriptive, a writer should employ adverbs and adjectives to be specific. Adverbs can modify verbs, adverbs or adjectives. Many adverbs end in “ly.” Rather than car, write a red car. Instead of a red car, write a red Corvette. Instead of red Corvette, write, “A candy-apple red Corvette roared loudly down the road.”

By using specific descriptors, readers can instantly picture the image you’re trying to convey. By applying these specific modifiers, readers don’t have to wonder what you mean—and that’s a good thing. But when you lean too heavily on modifiers to get your ideas across clearly, your mental picture clouds over and the meaning can be muddled.

If you look over your work and spot many modifiers, try limiting them to the most important description in the passage. Avoid stacking modifiers, such as a pattern of double modifiers for each thing described. Repetitive double modifiers (the thin, tall man, the young black-and-white dog) can be condensed by choosing a more particular noun or verb. Thus, the young black-and-white dog could be rewritten as, “The black-and-white puppy.”

Vanquish Vagueness

Vague modifiers are another area of frequent overuse. Words such as very, big, small, a lot, a little and short or long mean different thing to different people. If your writing bulges with these vague comparisons, take a step back.

Could you compare with known quantities that might help readers instantly envision your point? Instead of getting out a timer or a measuring stick, try comparing with a known quantity. He towered  like a telephone-pole gives an exaggerated image but succeeds in communicating the idea.

Directional cues such as left, right can also be simplified. It’s not necessary to tell readers that your character stepped to his right, only that he stepped to one side. Identifying precise movements of a character’s limbs or judging their size or length of movement will probably confuse more than help your readers. Avoid vagueness except when specifics will only serve to make readers get out their rulers.

If you delete adverbs, remember to revise with particular, active verbs. 

Modifiers to Magic

Writers often hear that “adverbs are not our friends.” Often, it’s true—those pesky “ly” words gum up the action. But if you delete adverbs, remember to look for and revise with particular, active verbs. She went into the house could be rewritten as, “Toting two grocery bags, she kicked open the door.” Some would add, “with her foot,” but have you ever seen anyone kick with anything but their foot?

Particular verbs not only liven the action, but they can also give readers a more complete reading experience. Instead of walking quickly, a character trots. Instead of speaking loudly, he can yell, growl, shout or holler. Replacing adverbs with specific verbs tightens your work and also enlivens readers.

A word about tight writing: as you learn to use specific adjectives and verbs, avoid feeling you can never use a very or a big. Sure, revise your prose so it’s clear and concise—that’s what communication is all about. Yet descriptors and specific verbs also hold the keys to arousing readers’ emotions. Use modifiers intentionally and purposefully but write in your own voice as it develops.

What kinds of modifiers give you the most trouble?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *