Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oh ye pesky modifiers!

"If you catch an adjective, kill it." Mark Twain.
"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Stephen King

"What??" asks the writer incredulously. "Kill off all my beautiful darling adjectives and adverbs??"
To which I hand the shocked writer a blood red pen and chortle maniacally.

Okay, okay. You don't have to get rid of all the adjectives and adverbs. They are parts of speech, after all. They can enhance a sentence. That's their job. But adjectives and adverbs are like the spice you add to the stew. Add a  teaspoon of cayenne pepper and the stew tastes better.But add a jar of cayenne pepper and people will gag when they taste the stew. So it is with modifiers.

Take this sentence:
It was a very gray rainy gloomy day.
It's a fine sentence, technically speaking. But it suffers from excessive modifier pile-on, EMP.  EMP makes your writing weak. Weak writing makes for bad prose.  How can we fix it?
The first step is easy. Take out very. You can usually take out very without causing much damage.
Now we have:
It was a gray rainy gloomy day.
Better, but it still has EMP. The next thing we need do is look at the three modifiers and choose the strongest one. I vote for  gloomy, but you can choose whichever you like.
Now we have:
It was a gloomy day. 
That's much better. No more EMP.
You may want to change the sentence to make it more interesting:
It rained for three days without stopping.
Rain turned the valley into a crypt.
Both of these have a bit more meat to them and avoid the EMP problem all together.

Here's an experiment you can try:
Take the first page or two of your story or novel. Copy and paste it to a separate document.
Follow these steps:
1. Find the word very and delete it wherever it appears. Do the same with the word quite.
2. Delete all of the adjectives and adverbs.
3. Read through the piece. Put back only those adverbs and adjectives that you need.
Like the results?

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