Modifiers are adjectives, adverbs or phrases whose only purpose is to modify a noun or verb. They are to language what accessories are to clothing. Used unwisely, they can ruin the whole thing.
Let it be clear: I love adjectives and adverbs. They’re an essential part of every language. But as with anything in life, they must be used in moderation.
Behold the following sentence, written by me 10 years ago:
A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plant handwritten in a book bound with ribbons.
This sentence has… ahem… potential, but as is, it’s terrible. It’s a translation, but the original is hardly better. We’ll leave all of the other problems for some other time and focus on the modifiers:
A white hand with fine and long fingers was faithfully transcribing the properties of plants handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.
21 words in that sentence, 14 of which are modifiers or part of a modifier. There are even modifiers within modifiers. Worst: the same exact thing could be said in a tighter and more elegant way.
A white hand with fine and long fingers
Except in certain horror scenes, hands and fingers usually go together… no need for both words. Only talking about fingers make the reader picture a hand in their head. Also, there’s a word for “fine and long”: slender. Let’s use that instead.
When I originally wrote this, I wanted to make the character look as devoted as a monk transcribing the Bible. I could leave it there, but I prefer to take it out.
plant properties handwritten in a notebook bound with ribbons.
There is such a thing as too many details. I won’t talk about it in depth here, but know it: some details do nothing for the story and are therefore clutter. Here, it is unnecessary to point out it is bound with ribbons, but I do want to give it a homemade look… Well that’s it: “a homemade notebook”. Now, let’s change the verb for “written”, since it is implicit that it is written by hand from the very word “notebook”.
White, slender fingers were transcribing the properties of plants written in a homemade notebook.
That 21-word-sentence is reduced to 14, with now only 7 modifiers. It is still “flowery” enough, but much more elegant.
Another trick to get rid of an excess of adjectives, adverbs or other modifiers, is to use stronger nouns (skyscraper or tower for tall building) or verbs (exhausted for very tired), or more precise modifiers (like slender for long and fine, etc.). If I don’t recommend you to use the thesaurus to avoid repeating the same adjective twice in one sentence, I encourage you to use it to find the right word.
Finally, it is often a good idea to “show, [not] tell”. For example, if your character is moody, it should reflect on his actions and words; that’s how people understand others’ moods. Same with most character traits, weather, etc. Compare: “It was cold outside” and “The cold bit my skin as I walked out”.
Oh wow, there is a lot of information in here, but you made it to the end. You did great.
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but 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, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
– Mark Twain, letter to D.W. Bowser, 20 March 1880