Writing Well: Magical Modifiers

road hell adverbsEvery once in a while, you come across a discovery that gives you the opportunity to transform your writing. This post is about just such a discovery.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs, so says Stephen King. And, who am I to argue with Mr. King.

In Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams’ character, John Keating, forbids his students to use the word very (the most heinously bland and meaningless modifier of them all), “… because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.”

The case against adverbs is a strong one, with revered authors from every era and genre giving impassioned testimony against this eternal enemy of good writing:

  • “Adverbs are another indication of writing failure. Exactly the right verb can eliminate the need for the adverb.” William Sloane
  • “Omit needless words. Watch for adverbs that merely repeat the meaning of the verb.” Strunk and White
  • “Most adverbs are unnecessary. . . . Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.” William Zinsser

It’s enough to make you think that perhaps (along with religion, politics, and the Oxford comma), adverbs should be included on the list of things not appropriate for polite conversation.

But, in his book Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner says, “Adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox.” Could it be that someone is willing to mount a defense for the modifier?

One of my personal favorites, E.B. White joins Gardner on the stand with his own message of moderation, “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power.”

Could it be, perhaps, that modifiers are not one-hundred percent evil? Might they after all have some redeeming qualities and a purpose to serve?

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

The trick is in learning how to use them wisely.

I am not yet a master of modifiers, but I did have something of an epiphany during the Fiction I Grub Street class that I attended this past fall. Actually, my discovery was less an epiphany and more a gift, served to me on a silver platter by our instructor, KL Pereira.

During our last, “wrap-up” class, we touched on a number of random topics including The Modifier. Pereira asked us to define the purpose of modifiers, and I enthusiastically raised my hand and proved myself a complete ass by saying confidently, “To clarify and/or emphasize the noun or verb it modifies.”

Though she was much too kind (and tactful) to do so, Pereira would have been well within her rights to smack an imaginary game show buzzer to indicate a tragically wrong answer.

What I learned that day was that the modifier’s job is to create friction.


Adjectives and adverbs do not exist to simply corroborate or even augment. In expert hands, they are used to alter the meaning of the word they modify, to create new meaning by giving the reader something unexpected.

Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?

  • In support of his claim that adverbs can, in fact, be worthy tools in the hands of an adept writer, Gardner shares this example, “Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously – a startling word that makes the scene spring to life.” Do you see how the word conscientiously adds depth and meaning to the verb rocks?
  • In the Grub Street class, Pereira shared a short piece by Angela Carter called The Kiss. Though only a couple of pages in length, this story bursts with decadent and tantalizing descriptions. Carter’s veritable army of modifiers marches through the reader’s senses without ever once sounding tired or repetitive. She writes about the “throbbing blue” of ceramic tiles and the “whirling plaits” of the peasant women. The marketplace in her story has a “sharp, green smell.” There is no question that each of Carter’s modifiers is pulling its weight.
  • In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White use a bit of a poem by William Allingham to illustrate the proper use of modifiers:

    Up the airy mountain,

          Down the rushy glen,

    We daren’t go a-hunting

           For fear of little men …

The modifiers “airy” and “rushy” are unexpected and unique. They create friction that helps the writer paint a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind.

  • In On Writing Well, William Zinsser writes about the dangers of “adjective-by-habit” in a fabulous little rant that bears repeating:

“Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer until they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. … The adjective that exists solely as decoration is a self-indulgence for the writer and a burden for the reader.”

After bemoaning improper, redundant adjective use such as “yellow daffodils” and “brownish dirt,” Mr. Zinsser offers an example of appropriate adjective use, “If you want to make a value judgment about daffodils, choose and adjective like ‘garish.’”

Point taken, Mr. Zinsser. Point taken.

Training myself to exercise creativity and wisdom in my use of modifiers will be, I expect, a never-ending effort. Old habits die hard, as they say. I feel, however, better armed against the threat now that I have this new bit of knowledge tucked away in my writer’s toolbox. I hope you do, too!

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

88 thoughts on “Writing Well: Magical Modifiers

  1. This post made me SO HAPPY, you have no idea. Though I am by no means a master of their use, I am a huge proponent of the fact that it is foolish to completely abolish an entire set of words from the English language. I do agree that the use of adverbs can be lazy, but I personally think that any writer who completely condemns them is a fool. Every type of word has its place, depending on the piece in question. 🙂

  2. VERY well put. 🙂 I think that everything is good in moderation, there should be no absolute Do’s and Don’ts in writing. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Thank you for sharing your gift. It always strikes me a bit tragic when I re-read my early drafts and find the same cringe-worthy redundancy and blandness I am quick to criticize in other’s writing. You have a great blog that I enjoy reading.

    • One of the best things to do is edit someone else’s work and then return to your own. It gives you fresh eyes after pouring over someone else’s. It benefits everyone because you end up identifying and then applying what you discover.

    • Thank you, jdnick. I don’t think that’s tragic at all. If you can look at those early drafts and see the mistakes you made, that sounds like progress to me. It does always seem easier to see such things in the work of others, but – with practice – we can learn to see them in our own prose as well.
      Thanks for being here! 🙂

    • That’s just what I felt – epiphany. And once you “see” it, you start to see it everywhere. It’s kind of cool.

  4. Thanks for this Jamie Lee, once explained it makes a lot of sense. I usually try to avoid adjectives but I see from the examples how they can enrich your writing – it’s really a matter of choosing them carefully (I had to stop myself from writing “very carefully”, it’s such a habit! Going to reblog this on my website https://allychat.wordpress.com.
    A great post and super blog, thanks 🙂

    • You’re so welcome, allychat! (Hi!)
      It really is pretty simple once someone explains it to you. That’s just how I felt when my teacher set me straight. 😉

  5. Reblogged this on Allychat's Blog and commented:
    This is a super post for all aspiring writers about the use of modifiers – adverbs and adjectives and how they can be put to good in writing – I know, it’s surprising isn’t it. Enjoy 🙂

  6. I love this, because the right modifier can make a scene vibrate instead of just descriptive. This also proves how beneficial having a good editor is, because they can identify when a writer is writing or just using filler to make something more interesting.

    • “… make a scene vibrate” <— love that. 🙂

      And three cheers for great editors. My mom is a fabulous editor and I've seen her work her magic. A good editor can transform a piece of writing.

      TKS for stopping by!

  7. I think I should be paying you ‘mucho dinero’ for this valuable lesson. You have explained and clarified what has puzzled me, even after reading similar topics from other ‘expert’ writers.

    Now I have a tool to re-read earlier writing, find living examples of redundant adjectives and kill ’em with contrast! The next step will be putting that into practice in future writing.

    I’m re-blogging this to my ‘lessons’ blog – it’s my private blog where I file posts for future reference. Thanks, Jamie!!

    • Marvelous, Sammy! 😉 I love to hear that.

      I also love “kill ’em with contrast.” What a great way to put that.

      Good luck with your editing. I hope you find the process fun. It’s almost like a kind of alchemy – transforming scenes with unexpected combinations of words that turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

      Thanks for sharing!

  8. I liked “rocking conscientiously” … “garish daffodils” … “sharp green smell.” Thoughtful quotes and examples. Made the point of choosing modifiers with wisdom to create a special picture and feeling in the reader. Thanks for posting.

  9. When adverbs are no longer considered a part of the English language, I will stop using the words. Really (pardon the adverb), this kind of elitism is silly. Writing that’s devoid of adverbs sounds stiff and formal and lacks the quality of everyday speech. Nothing can take the place of the “perfect verb,” but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional use of a qualifier. Maybe adverbs should be avoided in technical writing, but in creative writing, it’s a “different story.”

    Just my opinion…

    • I agree that many people approach this with a bit of an elitist attitude. Adverbs exist for a reason. They are not intrinsically bad or wrong. It is easy, however, to use them in ways that fail to add value. That said, it’s important to find your own groove with adverbs, one that feels natural and authentic. As with any writing goal, effective modifier usage takes practice.

      Good luck with finding your modifier groove!

  10. Pingback: Jamie’s Magical Modifiers | bemuzin

  11. huh, now that I re-blogged this to my private ‘lesson’ site, I can’t reblog to my REAL site. So I went to Plan B and posted a link-up on my Bemuzin’ blog recommending that my readers click to read your excellent post today, Jamie.

    Oh Look – not a ‘very’ anywhere in my comment. That’s writing progress *grin*

    • Your “not a ‘very’ anywhere” comment made me smile. 🙂

      Thanks so much for sharing. Happy to be introduced to your bemuzin’ community!

  12. Excellent post Jamie 🙂 I am afraid I love adverbs and sprinkle my writing liberally with them and some of my all-time favourite books are populated with modifiers (like The Night Circus) that said, I needed this reminder.

    • Hi, Yolanda!
      Hmmm … I also enjoyed The Night Circus & your comment makes me want to go back and read some to see just what the modifier situation is like. You’ve piqued my curiosity. 😉


  13. Found you via Bemuzin. I am on the alert for unneeded adverbs and adjectives in my writing. I love this post because it promotes their usage with some great examples. Thanks.

    Best regards,

    • You’re so welcome, Elizabeth. And thanks for coming over from Sammy D’s digs! 😉

      I also found the examples to be really helpful. They inspired me to think about modifiers in a much more creative way. It’s challenging, but kind of fun.

      Good luck!

    • That’s what we like to hear – less anxiety! 🙂
      And – yes – I’ve felt “guilty” too. It’s tough not to when you’re constantly having that same advice hammered into your brain over and over again.

      I was relieved to know that there is a “right” way to use modifiers. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort.

      Happy writing!

  14. Ah, great post. And so true, anything in expert hands is perfectly fine. Language is here for us to use or abuse, up to us the road we take. Thanks for this, Jamie. Glad I found it on Sammy’s blog.

    • Welcome, Silvia. Thanks for swinging by from Sammy’s place!

      Though I don’t consider myself an expert, learning lessons like this one helps me (I hope!) to avoid language abuse. 😉

  15. Jamie,

    I usually skim over the grammar ones, but I thought this post was so well written. Your use of the modifier “magical” in the title forced me to take a look. And then you wrote the post like this story, this mystery to solve. You kept leading me on and on… so I had to read it. The whole thing. Good info too! I would say this post is as much a lesson on how to take a boring subject and make it sparkle, as well as a grammar epiphany. The two seem strangely compatible. Thanks and well done!

    • Nicky,
      Thank you so much. Your comments make me feel all warm & fuzzy. 😉 I don’t think you could have said anything nicer.

    • Friction is CRITICAL, right? KL (the instructor of the class I took) began each workshopping discussion by asking, “Where’s the energy in this piece?” More times than not, the energy comes from some kind of friction. You’ve gotta have it.

  16. Great post. I must share this. Adverbs and adjectives have their place. I think adjectives are more important than adverbs, though. You can have more intense verbs, but more intense nouns? That’s a difficult one. I can’t imagine a book without colour, for one thing. I find it nearly impossible to avoid all adverbs and adjectives (this sentence contains both).

    • Thank you very much. 🙂
      I agree, modifiers add color and flavor to our writing … even more so when they are used properly in ways that surprise the reader.

  17. I am so glad I came across your post. I edit my work first time round by scooping out all those modifiers and on the next edit a lot of them go back in again because it seems flat and lifeless without them. Stories just can’t live devoid of well chosen adjectives and adverbs.

    • I’m glad you came across my post, too! 🙂

      I can see how you’d have a bit of a “boomerang” editing experience – removing and replacing modifiers. I am continuing to study modifier use in the essays and novels that I’m reading – trying to learn more about how to choose the “right” modifier – the one that surprises and really brings the writing to life.

      Thanks for being here!

  18. Oh, goodie–does that mean I can keep a few of my naughty adverbs? Great article and Suddenly Marketing reminds me of one of my favorite Yellow Pages ads. Instead of fast service, an auto repair place promoted their “sudden service”. The mind boggles at what kind of service they meant by sudden.

    • YES. You can keep your naughty adverbs. 😉

      I’m not sure what “sudden service” means in the context of auto repair, but for my marketing business it’s meant to convey the fun experience of “suddenly” getting it – when you hit your marketing groove. It’s good when it happens.

  19. Great post. It’s a relief to hear some new advice on how to use modifiers correctly. I’ll definitely keep this in mind as I work using them in my writing. I hope I can see growth in this area this year!

  20. Reblogged this on Words & Pics and commented:
    Since I more and more have started to write again, I found this post (and the blog itself) very interesting and educational.
    When visiting Sammy at http://bemuzin.com, she had written about this blog and put in a link to it! Thank you, Sammy! I’ll follow this blog!

  21. Thank you for writing this article. I have often used “very”. In times to come, I will be grappling with it.
    I will be following you to find out more pointers. Sheen.

    • Grapple away. That’s what we like to hear. 🙂

      Thanks for being here, Sheen. I look forward to seeing you around the blog in the future.

  22. I’m guilty of being lazy and sticking in adverbs at times. I think a well placed adverb definitely can bring something to the table but that’s all about context. It’s a challenge trying to find the right words at times but writing is a challenge so bring it on:)

  23. I love adverbs, but do understand that they need to be cut down. However, I think that depending on the nature of your book, you can pull it off. I mean, Neil Gaiman anyone?

  24. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Planting the Seeds of a Writing Life Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | Live to Write – Write to Live

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s