Modifiers Modifying Modifications

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

Adjectives from Lanetta's Creations

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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36 thoughts on “Modifiers Modifying Modifications

  1. I saw some articles yesterday that called the overuse or misuse of adjectives and adverbs lazy writing. They also go back to Show vs Tell, you can say he spoke happily, but does that really put an image in your head. What I started doing to rid my prose of the ones that are absolutely unnecessary is to control + F in search of -ly. I found twenty in the first search and also saw ten of those were ‘only’ and one of them family. I weeded it down to seven. This is the only no-no that I kept because I felt the redundancy added to the situation:
    ‘You have a gun, she thought stupidly.’
    I could be wrong. But it is the only instance of that kind of word in the entire chapter.
    I did the same for -ing words.

    Thanks for the linkage to my article.

    • Thank you, Nina. Some great suggestions here. I’ve never tried searching for them this way, but will certainly give it a go, just in case so “-ly”s have escaped my notice.
      Ultimately it is up to each writer to decide what they take out and what they leave in. If that is the only instance in a chapter it won’t detract the reader in any way. If they notice it, it would be for the right reasons.
      As for the link to your blog, absolutely. After all, Let’s Talk Opinion posts are all about making connections 🙂
      Warm regards,
      Vic

  2. Well, shoot. Was getting ready to get my computer gamer geek on and talk about Half Life Mods. And game modders decrying others modding their work, after they modded someone else’s work…

    The hypocrits…

    😉

      • I will have you know that I DM’d you about 2 weeks ago and inquired about using your headshot.

        That’s why #VB009 was text only until I got fed up and just stuck you in #PoofsPhoneBooth. haha.

        You are quite bad at DM’s. Fortunately I adapt, improvise and overcome.

      • I was sure that I DMed you back regarding that. I certainly remember sending you a message to let you know that it was ok to use it. In any case, it is all sorted now so we’ve overcome that little hurdle. Well improvised 😉

      • Yeah, it keeps deleting Stevie and my conversation.

        On Tweet Deck it keeps pulling up months old conversations that have been lost in the normal Twitter UI.

        Quite annoying to have to delete months old DM’s one at a time that randomly pop up….

      • I’m the same way. We need constant reminders. Even when I look at those snippets I post, I cringe at the stupid mistakes. It is funny how a different format brings the mistakes to the fore. Hmm, weird. Anyhow, mistakes are there to learn from.

  3. I wish you all the best, Vic. Don’t be afraid of expressing in your own unique style regardless of the rules. If every voice was the same we would only need to read one book and there would be no need for anyone to write or speak or even exist. We are all imperfect, we all have something to learn, we all have a purpose that is beyond our capacity to understand. Let the rules not be a barrier to self-expression but a gentle guidance into a fuller, more truthful way of communicating the unique self that is.

  4. When I was first in college and discovered Poe, and Twain, and all the rest did not produce their work in one first and final draft I was shocked. You mean even the greatest writers have to work at it? What a relief…

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