Modifying Your Modifiers

“The road to Hell is paved with adjectives.”

-Stephen King

It goes without saying that the quality of writing depends on the reader you ask. What one person considers the greatest novel ever written is someone else’s example of what a book shouldn’t be. Even so, there’s something writers can watch out for that most editors don’t want to see in a manuscript: excessive modifiers.

Adjectives and adverbs are the double agents of writing; they can provide just the right description or bog down the manuscript with wordiness. What modifiers are meant to do is enhance the sentence, help plainer words pop and craft a stronger image for the reader. Sometimes, though, they can take over a sentence. In fact, they often take over sentences—which is why it’s best to use them with care. Write without depending on little “-ly” words to express what you want to communicate.

Modifiers work when readers don’t expect them. For example, think about the word “smile.” When you hear it, you immediately think of a happy person’s face, right? So there’s no need to say that it’s a “happy smile” or that a character “smiles happily” because readers will infer the emotion from “smile” alone. Writers aren’t enhancing the readers’ experience by using redundant modifiers. However, if a character smiles “wickedly,” “coldly,” or “thinly,” it changes the reader’s perception of the action, which is an improvement.

Differentiating types of smiles can help to spice up sentences without resorting to modifiers, too. Smiling sarcastically could be “smirking,” widely could be “grinning,” and proudly could be “beaming.” Some writers may be horrified to think that they should cut their modifiers, but doing so forces the writer to rely on other vocabulary or sentence structure to express a thought. Take a look at these examples:

Sentence: The cat jumped onto the couch.
Sentence with modifiers: The brown, striped cat jumped quickly and landed gracefully on the soft, dark blue couch.
Sentence with other vocabulary: Leaping onto the couch, the tabby sunk into its navy cushions.

The third one is the most interesting, isn’t it? The first sentence is too dull, and the second too cluttered. Many new writers, experimenting with description, will start off with work that looks like the second example, but the goal would be to write more like the third. That one is descriptive without using typical adjectives and adverbs; instead, it features stronger verbs, and it plays with sentence structure by using the clause “leaping onto the couch” to describe the tabby’s actions. Choose effective words to express ideas, like specifying a tabby instead of saying “brown, striped cat.” Be sure to use words that people know, though; you don’t get points for using concise descriptions that readers can tell came from the thesaurus.

Watching modifiers means cutting your word count, which can be hard when you’re trying to reach a goal—especially in a book manuscript. Many writers depend on description to bulk up their prose. For lots of folks, a first draft comes more easily when they describe every character and situation as thoroughly as possible, which is understandable as it allows them to picture the scene in detail for themselves. When starting out, this is fine! Just remember to come back to bulky descriptions in the editing stages. Try reading your work aloud to make sure it sounds natural; many writers do this to make sure their dialogue works, but the fluidity of the prose is just as important.

Keep in mind that it’s always better for a book to be harder to write and easier to read than the other way around! Challenge yourself to expand your vocabulary and writing skills, and your readers will benefit from it—which will benefit you in return!

xo Paige


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