Get Rid of the Modifiers

Anyone can write, but a writer is a person who distills his or her thoughts into the essence of meaning.

To say something in the least amount of words gives writing power. It’s also more palatable and easier to digest for readers. Word economy, though, is a learned skill. (It doesn’t help that our schooling years taught us to write to word count.)

It takes a while to acquire the tricks of the trade. It then takes time to learn to recognize our wordiness. And it takes even more time, for some of us, to accept that wordiness is undesirable.

One arena for wordiness is a reliance on modifiers. By choosing particular nouns and strong verbs, modifiers are unnecessary. Again, this is a learned skill. It’s also a discipline, as particular nouns and verbs don’t come to us with having to audition the options. We must work to avoid the need for modifiers.

We also must develop our taste. Novice writer tend to think modifiers give writing a poetic flair. Literary agent Chip MacGregor chokes on the style. He writes, “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”

How many of us have encountered that type of pseudo-poetic phrasing, otherwise known as novelese?

Be Wary of Overwriting

What is overwriting? Overwriting is bloated prose. It might involve an abundance of $10 words, it might involve milking a chain of images, it might involve a profusion of adjectives and adverbs.

None of us are exempt from lapsing into bloated prose, which is why writers are rewriters. Writers come back and cut. Writers whittle and sharpen. Writers particularize.

Let’s look at an example.

“He wrote like a pretentious prig.” Or: “He wrote pretentiously.”

In the first version, prig is a great word—a wonderful example of what I mean by “particular”. The word prig draws a caricature in the mind’s eye. When we read the word we see a distinct impression.

But why don’t we ever see the word prig without the word pretentious? A prig is pretentious.

Automation is why. Pretentious prig is a word package, a trite expression we’ve heard so many times that the words are linked in our heads.

Repetition has hard wired myriad word packages and colloquialisms in our brains, thus they enter our early drafts. Thus, we need to return to weed them out—to distill our writing.

In the second version, pretentiously is a concept—it’s

telling an abstract rather than showing a concrete. We can do that we can better than that. We can choose detail.

By choosing a particular word, like prig, the writer doesn’t need to bolster his phrasing with modifiers. He wrote like a prig suffices. He wrote like a prig reads stronger without the adverb.

When rereading your work, look for word packages and redundancies. Then look at your adjectives and adverbs. Are they essential to clarity? How does the passage read without them? If they are essential, can you particularize the noun or verb to eliminate the modifier?

A.E. Guthrie, Jr.—

Nouns and verbs are the guts of the language. Beware of covering up with adjectives and adverbs.


stupid fooldull boreannoying pestover-achieving workaholic
hostile enemylazy sluggardbrilliant geniusnit-picky micromanager
considerate friendthieving plagiaristtalented artistegotistical snob
messy slobwomanizing Don Juanmanipulating conniverdespicable sleazeball

Congested traffic jams, tall skyscrapers, stately elms, friendly smiles, playful puppies, harrowing cliffs, doleful mourners—each declares its nature without modification.

  • Don’t write” filled the whole cup”. Either you filled it or you didn’t.
  • Don’t write “Thinking about it almost made me nauseous.” Either you feel nauseated or you don’t. Maybe a wave of nausea passed through you.

Always start with the right word, and refrain from using an adjective unless it makes a distinction. Don’t resort to weak substitutes that rely on crutches.

Mark Twain—

As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.


The adjective is the enemy of the noun.

Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

[Ezra was]… the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations…

As publishing houses no longer staff editors, readers are finding typos and, worse, sloppy writing.

The protagonist in Heather Gudenkauf’s These Things Hidden was valedictorian of her high school, but weak writing on Gudenkauf’s part undermines Allison’s dialogue and its role in characterizing her. The profusion of meaningless adjectives spoken by the hero portrays her as anything but a valedictorian. The word whole illustrates one example.

  • For five whole years…
  • You have started a whole new life.
  • That’s the whole point…
  • For the whole world to see…
  • I slept through the whole day
  • It’s like the whole world moved forward and I’m stuck.
  • …they didn’t really seem to care a whole lot about us.
  • …and the whole time…
  • …his whole body has wasted away…
  • …it was the only time in my whole life…
  • …to dismiss the whole six months…
  • …wanted to hear that from her my whole life…

Breaking a rule in writing, when done for effect, can achieve the writer’s goal. But breaking a rule because the writer’s habit wasn’t filtered from her work sabotages the story. At one point Gudenkauf has the hero saying, “I know I should drop the whole topic.” You either drop a subject or you don’t.

In the NY Times trade best seller The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, I read the line—

A crimson flush cherried her cheeks.

What’s wrong with that sentence? Crimson, red. Flush, red. Cherried, red. Wordy. And because it reaches for style, it sounds ridiculous.

But after citing this example, during an umpteenth reread, I found oversights muddying my work.

  • Among the various scenarios he envisioned… Scenarios indicate varied.
  • the dry, vacuous hole… How is a hole not vacuous?
  • Propelled himself forward. Propelled indicates forward or higher, depending on context.
  • A claw-foot tub sat on a raised platform amid the usual porcelain amenities one expected to find. A platform is raised, and usual repeats one expected to find

My worst oversight, though, parallels the one I criticized in Kate Morton’s work. I had written and left unaltered for several months—

The crowd flowed back in a receding tide.

Cherried to the third degree. Flowed back, receding, and tide say the same thing. Choose one and move on. I settled with The crowd receded.

There’s not a writer dead or alive who hasn’t written something stupid. Take comfort in that. Take caution, too. Who among us is infallible? By revision, I changed my own work to my work a few lines earlier on the page.

Don’t write, “It was a long year.” Years come in 365 day units. If time dragged, show monotony or burden that made its passage intolerable. Clichéd word packages will stop readers in their tracks and leave them questioning whether to continue.

To a schoolboy essayist, Mark Twain wrote—

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. This is the way to write English—it is the modern way, and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch adjectives, kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together; they give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse or flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

To write red strawberries or brown dirt has no value. If the strawberries are brown, though, and the dirt is red, the reader might not envision either without enhancing their description. Use adjectives when the picture depends on them, and always paint in as few words as possible. Modify with motive.

In Dark Places: A Novel, Gillian Flynn writes, “…a careful pile of feces.” The word careful is ironic. When the reader happens on it, it wins a laugh.

Adverbs Scream Amateur

We discussed the pitfalls of modifying with adverbs in the post Strong Verbs, Super Verbs but the subject merits emphasis.

Adverbs are a type of cliché. In the best scenario, they’re unnecessary. In the worst scenario, they’re a lazy stab at telling what the writer’s verb choice and context failed to show.

Graham Green—

The beastly adverb—far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.

Elmore Leonard—

The use of adverbs is a mortal sin.

Stephen King (who writes 2,000 adverb-free words every day)—

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Howard Ogden—

Adverbs are guilty until proven innocent.

For the doubters out there, let’s have a few more writers weigh in.

David Morely—

Adjectives and adverbs do not tug the momentum of the book forwards and are the first to feel the spotlight of redrafting… Sweep your work clean. Begin by cutting every adjective, then the adverbs.

Theodore Roethke—

To write good stuff you have to hate adverbs.

Geoffrey Nunberg—

Adverbs tend to show people at their worst—posturing, embellishing, apologizing, or just being mealy-mouthed. Adverbs may be a relatively small portion of the English vocabulary, but they account for about half the words on my personal enemies list.

Janet Fitch—

Pick a better verb. Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an a-bomb.

Lean sentences heighten the pace. If a word serves no purpose, if it says nothing or repeats what has been conveyed, delete it.

John got up and walked restlessly to the window.

Pause and think. Getting up to look out the window shows John’s restlessness. When we choose the right behavior or action, adverbs are redundant.

  • Don’t write totally flabbergastedFlabbergasted shows incredulity.
  • Don’t write I clenched my fist tightly. Can you clench your fist any other way?
  • Don’t write He snugly gripped him in a viceGrip and vice implies snug.
  • Don’t write very beautiful. Beautiful is absolute.
  • Don’t say you weren’t too please when the agent passed on your project.
  • Don’t write that you were quite frustrated. (How frustrated is that?)

As with adjectives, keep an adverb only if it supplies necessary information. He tried running faster and fell. If he’s already running, you must keep faster.

He Said Grimly

Stephen King—

While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.

Adverbs that modify how dialogue is said are criminal in the world of writing. Eliminate them without exception.

“Who taught you to write—Mo, Curly, or Larry?” he asked sarcastically.

When the dialogue does its job, readers don’t need to be told how it’s said.

“Oh sure, and I look like Julia Roberts,” she said facetiously.

The addition of the adverb sounds like a child trying to tell a joke. It doesn’t work, we don’t need it, and it’s lame style-wise.

A speaker can be facetious, sarcastic, or grim. A tone can be facetious, sarcastic, or grim. But how words are spoken can only be modified in reference to the sounds they produce. As sounds can be loud, soft, clear, or unclear, the verb said has few legitimate adverbs.

But legitimacy, or grammatical correctness, is not the professional writer’s standard. The professional writer’s standard is vivid, economical prose—to write what the non-writer cannot, which is to unravel a story, not tell in abstracts the mood in which actions occur. Facetious, sarcastic, grim, etc. must be shown in particulars—in mannerisms, dialogue, behavior, a character’s focus and inner thoughts. Myriad ways to sidestep the adverb exist. The writer’s job is to be creative.

Make Dialogue Do Its Job

Too many writers modify speaker attributes to shin up weak dialogue. If you feel an adverb coming on, develop the context, show the character’s emotional state, or rewrite the dialogue. Strong writing needs no explanation, and weak writing remains weak, regardless of adverbs hinting at what’s going on.

To tighten his prose, writer Gabriel García Márquez banned his use of adverbs. “Before Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” he says, “there are many. In Chronicle, I think there is one. After that, in Love there are none.

When in doubt, say it in as few words as you can. The place to start: Strive to find the right verb. Follow it with detailed nouns.

Notice how light and shadow are effective in this passage from D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.

And she lifted her hands and danced again, to annul him, the light glanced on her knees as she made her slow, fine movements down the far side of the room, across the firelight. He stood away near the door in blackness of shadow, watching transfixed. And with slow, heavy movements she swayed backwards and forwards, like a full ear of corn, pale in the dusky afternoon, threading before the firelight, dancing his nonexistence, dancing herself to the Lord, to exultation.

Strong verbs have made adverbs unnecessary, whereas adverbs ruin following passage.

Rapidly shutting his eyes, grappling with the facts, he knew he had been hit at a city intersection. Cautiously opening one eye, the wide field remained as tangible as before. Without thinking, he sat up. Pain slid up from his left leg to his head. “Oh, God!” he whispered after he tore the black pant leg up to his knee and saw the mass of blood coating his leg in a slick glistening layer. Instinctively clutching his hands to the long wound, he futilely pressed the skin together to stop the bleeding. “Oh, God!” he repeated, glancing frantically about him….

Cautiously opening one eye is superfluous—opening one eye implies caution, just as the act of clutching implies instinct. The initial rapidly is ineffective, and frantically would be unnecessary if a stronger verb had been employed.

This is not to say that adverbs should be deleted from a writer’s vocabulary. The judicious use of words ending in -ly can add color and nuance. In this passage from The Horse-dealer’s Daughter, D. H. Lawrence makes effective use of the adverbs floutingly and sumptuously. The passage would lose much if they were deleted:

The great, draught horses swung past. They were tied head to tail, four of them, and they heaved along to where a lane branched off from the main road, planting their great hoofs floutingly in the fine black mud, swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously, and trotting a few sudden steps as they were led into the lane, round the corner.

Lawrence uses adverbs and adjectives, but each of them intensifies the image rather than blurring it.

Incomparables are words with absolute parameters, meaning their definitions preclude modification, though verbal habit leads many writers to modify them.

  • Something is complete or it’s not.
  • Something is destroyed or it’s not.
  • Something is unique or it’s not.

The same is true of dead, unanimous, married, or pregnant.

Thomas Jefferson—

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

Albert Einstein—

Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.

Learn more ways to avoid wordy writing

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist