Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with Nina Kaytel
“The bane of every writer is the adjective. Too many and the reader gets bored – their mind over-worked and you lose the reader’s interest. The opposite is too few which has the same affect. As with many topics in writing there needs to be balance.” Adjectives
Ah yes… These tricky modifiers. I’ve come to loathe them. Nina‘s article focuses on adjectives, but to me these devils go hand in hand with adverbs when it comes to tormenting my every waking hour.
I will never forget the first meeting with a friend who insisted on reading the first draft of my novel and decided to give me some feedback. His first words: “Too many adverbs. Adjectives too, but Gosh! You really went to town on the adverbs.”
Right then. Modifiers. What are they? Well… “that which modifies” apparently. Don’t you just hate circular definitions? Of course a modifier modifies. What else is it supposed to do? Adjectives and adverbs are examples of modifiers. The first is used to modify a noun (a wise prince) and the second to modify a verb (she walked quickly).
Why should we worry about modifiers in our writing? I can tell you on good authority that they are the quickest and easiest way to have a manuscript rejected. This is what agents and publishers look for first when faced with a new manuscript: the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs.
We use them to bring our nouns and verbs to life, make them more vivid, and yet – almost always – the result is opposite to the one intended.
Here are some of the rules I follow:
1. If I must use an adjective or adverb, then it will be always one and no more than one. When you have two modifiers in a row, each detracts from the power of the other. When there are three or more, the loss of effect is greater. So… I pick the one that I consider to be the strongest in the line and cut all others. Less is more.
2. No matter how many modifiers I may add to a scene, I will never be able to paint the picture quite as vividly as the reader’s imagination. They will use their own life experience to fill in the gaps, making the scene their own, and when this is the case I trust they’ll want to read on. Loose brushstrokes are preferable to micro-managing the content of every scene.
3. If am going to use some modifiers, I do my best to avoid using commonplace ones. Commonplace modifiers make for commonplace images and descriptions and the worst I could do to my reader is bore him with yet another blah-blah. They have enough of that in everyday life, so I’d rather not subject them to the same with my prose.
4. Modifiers, rather than strengthening the nouns and verbs they are attached to, can weaken them. If a noun or verb requires a modifier, then chances are, they are not strong enough to begin with. If they can’t stand on their own, I usually cut them out and replace them with stronger nouns and verbs rather than piling up modifiers to make up for their lack of impact.
5. Modifiers are the enemy of pace. They make for slow, awkward reading. One way to avoid this, for me at least, is to read aloud what I’ve written and record it then play it back. Any sluggish spots are easily eliminated by using this method.
So the solution to the overuse of modifiers – that is adverbs and adjectives – is a straightforward one. Wherever possible cut back, then cut back some more. 😉
Do you have modifier nightmares too? How do you make them go away?
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