Easy on the Modifiers

Imagine taking a friend to a fancy restaurant. After consulting the waiter, he orders the chef’s expensive specialty dish. When the savory work of art arrives, he asks the startled waiter for a bottle of ketchup and drowns the entire dish with half a bottle of Heinz.

What?” he snaps in response to your wide-eyed stare. “So, I like ketchup!”

I like ketchup too. On hamburgers and french fries. In small doses. But the idea of eating a spoonful of ketchup is nauseating. Why? Because ketchup is a condiment — a side item designed to complement the flavor of other foods. Condiments are supposed to enhance the flavor of the main dish, not be the main dish.

And when it comes to descriptive writing, that’s a good way to think about modifiers, too. Adjectives and adverbs are perfectly good words which serve a useful purpose. But they are meant to complement the words they modify, not overwhelm them. They work best in small doses.

Inexperienced writers, particularly when writing descriptively, tend to get modifier-happy. They think that to really describe something, it is necessary to string together descriptive words:

The big, brown, hairy spider crawled very slowly and quietly along the thickly carpeted floor.

The imaginative little boy lay peacefully in the deep green grass beneath the breeze-blown summer trees and sweetly dreamed of a large, shiny, silver fish leaping fitfully at the end of his strong, taut fishing line.

These sentences certainly describe, but they overdo it. The sheer number of adjectives and adverbs is distracting. Be selective in your use of adjectives and adverbs. In fact, if you are focusing on using good, concrete nouns and strong, vivid verbs, you will be able to eliminate most of the modifiers you’ve been depending on.

Don’t you prefer these tighter, sharper versions of the sentences above? Can you see what I’ve left out?

The tarantula crept silently across the carpet.

The boy lay in the deep grass beneath the breeze-blown maples and dreamed of silver trout leaping fitfully at the end of his line.

Here’s a rule to write by: Write with nouns and verbs.