Declutter your text: use modifiers in moderation

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.

Decora max res
Decora fashion shows it is possible for “too many accessories” to look great, but it is difficult to achieve; the same is true with modifiers.

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.

faithfully transcribing

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”.

Revised sentence:

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.

girl-4-copieAnother 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

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeBeware of repetitions.

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16 thoughts on “Declutter your text: use modifiers in moderation

  1. I’m going to have to sit and read all of my writing now; tighten it all up. Adjective murder spree. xD This was really good advice, especially since I feel like I use too many unnecessary words in a sentence. Must work on that. 🙂
    Have a wonderful day!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This is such great advice, for fiction writing and even for blogging! I feel like it’s easy to be tempted by adjectives (especially when resources like thesaurus.com exist) but decluttering your writing makes it so much easier for others to read!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What is your opinion on tools like Hemingwayapp.com that give automatic suggestions on removing adjectives? Do you use any tools like that or it’s all you?

    Also, any suggestion on how to cope with losing adjectives? I love adjectives. Always feels so hard to remove them from my glorious, funny, insightful, detailed, great blog posts. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know that particular app, thank you for making me discover it! It might be the best I’ve encountered so far; the others being (I like it too) and (meh).

      I tested the app on a few abstracts, and it’s like getting a revised copy from a proofreader: the highlighting makes me see my text with fresh eyes. I love that it highlights long sentences, “complicated” words, and adverbs. I’ll probably come to use it a lot during the later stages of self-revision.

      To cope with adjective loss, I love the Mark Twain quote at the end of my post: when you get rid of excessive adjectives, you make the ones left shine brighter. Also, when you think of it as having to choose between *words* and *message*… the choice is easy. ^_^

      Like

  4. I’m glad to have stumbled across this post. As a food blogger I’m often attending to adjectives as my goal is a final descriptive piece But – as a teacher – I LOVE this idea of deconstructing some of my old sentences! Looking forward to following and seeing your future content. -Deb

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh Ida, you had me cracking up! 😂 It is amazing how important editing (after a respectable period of time has lapsed) can be so important. We shouldn’t be wedded to words. Just because we want to include a certain word or words doesn’t mean that’s an appropriate home for it. Really informative and practical lesson on less is more.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I laugh after reading your post. It reminds me of my writing 😂😂😂 I write too much adjectives and i feel like i have to reflect lol. I agree with ‘you have to find the right word’. It needs many practices for an amateur like me, but it’s never bad to try. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t write fiction but this is great advice for any kind of writing really… blogging included. 🙂 But I think one of the hardest things in editing your work is cutting out a darling phrase which doesn’t belong in the piece you have written!

    Like

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