kill the big fat ugly modifier

Kill the Big, Fat, Ugly Modifier!

Among writers, one of the ever-quotable Mark Twain’s most quoted witticisms is the succinct bit of advice found in Pudd’nhead Wilson:

As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.

Ah, adjectives! What writer hasn’t had a joyous fling or two with that most seductive of all parts of speech? In an effort to convey the brilliance and vividness of our prose, we hand out modifiers like candy at a Fourth of July parade. After all, it’s imperative that the reader understand that the barn in question is big, red, and rundown. That the kid on the playground is fighting wildly and ferociously. That the ship’s white canvas sails are billowing in the wind. That’s all need-to-know information, right?

Where the Modifier Goes Wrong

Well, maybe. No one will argue that modifiers clarify mental images. At least, that’s the message we absorbed during all those grade school years of diagramming sentence after sentence chocked full of adjectives and adverbs. What we probably didn’t learn from all those years of diagramming is that the modifier can be the sign of a lazy writer. Modifiers break the cardinal rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell.

In the three sentences mentioned above, never once did I show you what the barn looked like, or the kid who was fighting, or the ship’s sails. With the help of my modifiers, you probably got the general idea, but how much more vivid would those sentences have been had I taken the time to show you? What if I had allowed you to see the dust swirling in the shadows of the barn, the pigeons roosting in the patches of sunlight that spill through the holes in the roof? What if you had seen the kid on the playground smacking his fists into someone’s face, blood splattering from his opponent’s nose? What if the wind had whipped the ship’s sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow?

See the difference? By deleting my modifiers, I was forced to dig deeper for specific nouns (pigeons, fists, nose, froth, prow) and vibrant verbs (swirling, roosting, spill, smacking, splattering, whipped, bursting, churning). These are words readers can sink their teeth into. Suddenly, they can hear the flutter and coo of the pigeons in the rafters. They can feel the warmth of blood against their skin. And they can smell the salt and seaweed of an ocean voyage.

Are Modifiers Always a Sign of Very Bad, No-Good Writing?

But does this mean that the modifier is dead? Should we avoid them completely? Of course not. Modifiers, like all parts of speech, serve their purpose. Another quote from Twain:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. 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. ( Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880)

Adjectives and adverbs exist in the English language for the sole purpose of refining it. We cannot show the reader every detail, both due to time and space constraints and the simple fact that some things—such as colors—are impossible to show on the written page without a bit of telling. When added to an already strong scene, modifiers can boost description into precision and vibrancy.

How to Use Modifiers to Zing Your Descriptions to Life

Take, for instance, one of our example sentences. The new description of the ship doesn’t indicate that the sails are white canvas. I didn’t include those details because most readers will assume this to be the case unless told differently. But what if my ship belonged to the Dread Pirate Roberts who always lofted black sails when he went into battle? Suddenly, we have a vital detail that could only be conveyed with a modifier:

The wind whipped the ship’s ash-black sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow.

Notice that this sentence conveys everything the original version did (and more), yet it contains only one modifier.

Even when modifiers are necessary, economy is vital. It’s ridiculously easy to get carried with modifiers. When we write phrases about “the remarkably, incandescently, breathtakingly gorgeous woman,” we not only smother our reader in repetition, we also drown out the already strong modifier “gorgeous.”

So, in short, while we probably need not go to Mark Twain’s suggested extreme of extermination, our writing can only be better for a careful pruning of adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers do their job best when used sparingly.

Tell me your opinion: How do you decide which modifiers to keep in your descriptions–and which to kill?

kill the big fat ugly modifier

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I realize this is an extremely old post, however, very helpful. Thanks!

  2. Glad you discovered it in the archives then!

  3. Anonymous says

    Urgh! This is so true and I have to admit it IS my biggest flaw! For some reason I tend to think things are not complete otherwise. Shame on me!

    Anyway, what was more useful to me is the fact you gave me an actual reason for WHY I should spare those modifiers, and I will keep that in mind.

    So thank YOU very much!

    Your blog is ab fab and I check on it every day. I have a bunch of novels in my head I haven´t started yet, but each post of yours is helping me to outline them a bit better.

    So, please keep going with this favulous site! 😀

    I didn´t do so yet because I´m too lazy to get out my credit card, but I will be getting your books to read them 😀

    I go hope you´ll see The Rain Still Falls finished soon. I´m sure the result will be worth it.

    HAve a fabulous day!

    A big hug.

    M.

  4. So glad you’re enjoying the blog! Sadly, The Rain Still Falls has been shelved, perhaps forever.

  5. Oh, my! You seemed so excited about that story.

    Why did you pull it off?

    M.

  6. It stumbled for a number of reasons, but ultimately it comes down to the reasons outlined in this post.

  7. Oh, yes, I remember reading that post!

    That´s bad! But then, I´m sure many many more stories where rise from the same place that one came from 🙂

    M.

  8. There always more stories! And, who knows, maybe I will get a chance to return to this one some day.

  9. Yes, exactly 🙂 One can be surprised on how boundless imagination actually is! IT´s a wonderful experience indeed.

    M.

  10. I delight in perusing your archives where I find things old and new, things I know and things I thought I knew about writing. Either way, you are a very good teacher and cheerleader well worth reading.

    I agree with this post but like one of the comments above, I have found that when I am writing down snippets and ideas that could end up whole summaries or chapters or scenes that I write them as they come filled with modifiers – as I learned in elementary school – to capture as much visual flavor as possible at the time I write. When I go back to work on the actual scene or summary, I do so with my scalpel and with each succeeding pass I trim out the fatty modifiers… but, not until I have recaptured the original visual in its fullness.

    Katie, thank you, for your faithfulness.

  11. @Dooginator: Yes, I totally agree. In those first drafts you’ve just got to dump it all out on the page – good, bad, and ugly. Once it’s actually on the page, there’s plenty of time to go back and edit out unnecessary modifiers.

  12. I have read so many guides saying ‘show don’t tell’ but this is probably the only one that gave actual examples and reasons. Great article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Show, don’t tell” is a hard one to grasp *without* examples, I find. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  13. I am about one third through my 2nd book, this one a crime fiction novel. I have learned so much from reading your posts and others. I only wish I had found you before I published the first one, (a memoir based on true stories of my youth and friends). I wrote it in 6 weeks, edited it in three months, and published in May of this year. OH to have that time back again. I may still be editing.

    Thank-you so much for this information. I started writing at age 16 for the newspaper, and now nearly 50 years later have picked it up again. A 64 yr. old novice. Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you.

    (and all this time I thought diagraming sentences was a waste of time.

    My new saying: Great Writers Never Tell Stories

  14. Hey, there, KM! I’m so glad to find you – just blogged on this topic, and was delighted to find you corroborate my theory – your explanation is leagues better 🙂
    I can see I’m going to learn a lot from you. Thanks for sharing!

Trackbacks

  1. […] overdo it. Since I’ve promised to cover the parts of speech, I want to pass along a great article by author and writing coach K. M. […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.