Really, Really, Really Good Advice: The Modifier Syndrome
by James Thayer
What’s wrong with this? “The muscled, sinewy wrestler quickly wiped glistening sweat from his meaty and haggard face.”
It suffers from modifier syndrome. This is more vivid: “The wrestler wiped sweat from his face.”
Adjectives modify nouns and adverbs modify verbs. We learned about them in fourth grade, and hoped we would never have to think about them again. But let’s think about them for a few moments. Avoiding modifier syndrome is a key to vivid writing.
For many writers—even legendary writers--avoiding the overuse of modifiers is difficult. Gordon Lish was Raymond Carver’s editor. A new collection of his work—Raymond Carver: Collected Short Stories—which contains pre-edited and post-edited versions of some stories, shows that Lish constantly cut away Carver’s adjectives and adverbs.
With modifiers, less is usually more. Here are four ways to avoid the modifier syndrome.
Avoid stacking: He lifted the black, shiny, Senegal wood. That’s three modifiers of wood. She flicked the switch for the white overhead fluorescent light. Three modifiers of light. He had hard piercing sapphire eyes. Three modifiers.
Using no modifier is usually best. One is sometimes needed. More than one, and the writer has begun to stack them like dominoes, and the sentence grows weaker, not stronger. The speeding locomotive rounded the corner is a strong sentence. The smoky, rumbling, iron-gray, twenty-three-ton speeding locomotive rounded the sharp and dangerous corner is a weak sentence.
How do we know when a modifier is strengthening rather than weakening our sentence? If the modifier is important to understanding the image we are trying to convey, use it. The skinny, furry cat has two modifiers. That the cat is skinny might be important to the story—maybe the cat has been neglected, a strong plot point--but that the cat is furry isn’t important because all cats are furry. Saying the cat is furry doesn’t add anything to the image. Leave it out.
Avoid emptiness. An empty adverb or adjective is one that doesn’t clarify anything. It’s a zero word, added to pad the sentence. Quickly and slowly are big culprits. I quickly grabbed the knife. All grabbing is quick because that’s what grabbing is. Quickly doesn’t add anything to the sentence. He slowly hobbled toward the bike. All hobbling is slow, because that’s what hobbling is. I slowly sat in the chair. As opposed to what, launching oneself at the chair? If you perform a global word search on your novel for quickly and slowly, you’ll find you can eliminate most of them.
Loudly and quietly are often padding, and are redundant. He yelled loudly. She whispered quietly.
Many other modifiers are often empty. The surgeon carefully inserted the needle. So, without carefully, the reader will think the surgeon laughed crazily and then wildly stabbed the needle into the patient? What does carefully add?
Small and large and long and short are often just padding. The small mouse: maybe if all our characters are mice, and we need to distinguish Big Daddy Mouse from Baby Bobby Mouse, using small as an adjective might be helpful, but usually a reader doesn’t need to know that the mouse is small. They’ve seen mice. They know they are small. Elephants are large and snakes are long.
Look for modifiers that don’t add to the reader’s image. If the word doesn’t clarify something important or add a vivid element to the sentence—if it is empty--don’t use it.
Avoid qualifiers and intensifiers. Here is a technique that will make our writing much leaner. E.B. White called qualifiers and intensifiers “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”
He was talking about needless qualifiers, the petty modifiers: rather, somewhat, generally, virtually, pretty (as in pretty much), slightly, a bit, little, sort of, kind of.
I was rather tired. She was slightly stooped. He was a bit timid. Her mother was a rather madcap master of ceremonies. The fishing was somewhat disappointing. I was a little embarrassed. He was a bit hesitant. He was sort of hungry. I was kind of angry. He was virtually lost.
Here are several intensifiers: very; really, truly. Examples: I was really tired. He was very cold. I was truly sorry.
Why do we use qualifiers and intensifiers? Often because we haven’t thought of the right word for what we want, so we construct it out of a weak modifier and a noun or verb. He was somewhat baffled, instead of He was puzzled. I was really cold instead of I was freezing. The bread was a bit old instead of The bread was stale.
A good way to show the emptiness of qualifiers and intensifiers is to add several in a row. I was really, really tired. Or: I was really, really, really, really tired. These border on nonsense, of course, but not much more so than the use of only one.
Qualifiers and intensifiers take the boldness out of writing. Why not say Jones was angry instead of Jones was somewhat angry? Why not say Amanda was flirty instead of Amanda was sort of flirty? Qualifies and intensifiers make our writing tepid.
Avoid summaries. Characters shouldn’t be described as handsome, gorgeous, beautiful, ugly or with other modifiers that summarize the quality of their features. These words are summaries rather than descriptions. The handsome German shepherd. The lovely girl. They offer the writer’s impression of the character, rather than giving information to the reader that allows the reader to draw an image. The same is true for descriptions of settings: a beautiful sunset. A picturesque valley. And action: an exciting footrace.
Descriptions should be specific and vivid: blue eyes, a doughy face, a moonlike face, a bump in his nose, swept back hair, a lofty forehead, thin and bloodless lips, silk-fine hair, he was so thin his ribs showed.
Paint the picture for the reader—draw the image in the reader’s mind of your character or setting or action--rather than summarizing it with one of these vague modifiers, and here’s the reason: the reader won’t do the mental work of giving a face to a character who is described as beautiful or a valley that is described as breathtaking or a fistfight that is described as violent.
If the author hasn’t done of the work of vividly describing a character or a setting or the action, the reader won’t either. Isabel was a beautiful woman with lovely eyes doesn’t leave a lasting impression with the reader. But try this: Isabel’s hair was the color of a raven’s wing. Her lips were pouty and quick to smile. Her eyes were pool-black, and set far apart. A notch was in her chin, and her nose was long and Gallic. She moved like a ballerina. Here, the reader learns she is beautiful by being informed of why she is beautiful. The reader will remember Isabel’s beauty.
Sometimes adjectives and adverbs add a strong and essential element to a sentence. But often—perhaps most often—they are really and truly meaningless padding.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com)