Starve an Adjective, Feed a Verb

I don’t know about you, but when I was in school I remember being urged to “improve” my writing by adding more adjectives. As a strategy, I feel this is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Why are adjectives so bad? Before I explain, let me give you a quick refresher: As you may (or may not) remember, adjectives are words that describe nouns. For example, pink, hideous, irritating, lovely, muffled, magnificent, scrawny, gorgeous, tart and grumpy are all adjectives. Adjectives don’t have to be just one word — they can be hyphenated, like triangle-shaped or two words, like ooey goey.

There are lots of difficulties with adjectives, but here are the three main ones:

Adjectives are imprecise. For words that are supposed to improve your writing, it’s remarkable how vague adjectives can be. Take the word magnificent, for example. Does it mean imposing (like a magnificent lion), awe-inspiring (like a magnificent sunset), noble (like a magnificent king) or grand (like a magnificent Manhattan apartment)? Many adjectives are a bit like the bubble-wrap you find surrounding courier envelopes — they hide and cushion rather than reveal.

Adjectives mean different things to different people. Here’s where you really get into difficulty. A few years ago, a well-known pizza billboard used the headline, “Ooey gooey.” To the copywriter, “ooey gooey” was code for “delicious.” But can’t you imagine someone — the kind of person who eats pizza with a fork, perhaps –thinking “ooey gooey” is disgusting? And that’s the trouble. When words are imprecise, you lose control over the meaning the reader takes in.

Adjectives sound too hype-y and sales-y. Today’s reader, beset with marketing, cross-marketing and sales messages wherever he or she turns, is more cynical than ever. Readers are looking for solid information from sources they can trust. If your writing is filled with adjectives, you’re going to sound like you’re selling all the time — and you’ll turn off readers. Look at this sentence, for example: Pristine beaches, abundant wildlife, and scores of Miami scene-makers make Fort Lauderdale a year-round hot spot. Doesn’t that make you suspicious rather than intrigued? Doesn’t it sound as though the writer is trying too hard? It’s the adjectives that cause the problem.

So, if not adjectives, then what? Here’s the big secret: Good writing isn’t about adjectives — it’s about verbs.

Verbs — words like run, carry, heft, prevail– embody action. Often described as the “workhorse” of the sentence, verbs power your writing. Consider these for example: squander, obstruct, plunder, poach. Each a single word, and each freighted with meaning. You wouldn’t think one word could carry such impact. But good verbs don’t just tell the story — they create a picture in the reader’s mind.

If you want to amp up your verbs here are some strategies you can use:

Whenever possible, try to replace “state of being” verbs — is, am, were, was, are, be, being, been — with action verbs. (Search for “is” or “was” in your writing and see how many you can eliminate.) For example: “Jerome was an A+ student” could become “Jerome earned straight A’s at school.”

Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.

Watch for the chance to use verbs that reflect sound — the baby gurgled; the girls shrieked.

Keep a list of powerful verbs you stumble across in your readingthen work to incorporate them in your own writing. Keep an eye out for offbeat and unusual uses of verbs. For example: “The crowd cascaded along the street before it was swallowed by the park.” Cascaded and swallowed are not two verbs you’d expect in a sentence like that — which makes them all the more powerful.

The bottom line? Forget about adjectives — they’re as floppy as a gaggle of 98-lb weaklings. Verbs, on the other hand, are the muscle-men and women of the beach. After all, if your goal is to move readers (either literally or metaphorically), doesn’t it make sense to focus on the ACTion words in your writing?


November 22, 2006

By Daphne Gray-Grant

(A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach who helps people writer better, faster. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach.)