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How To Use Modifiers More Effectively

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While modifiers -- adjectives and adverbs -- can add to a story, too many, or the wrong ones, can bog down your prose and lead to weaker nouns and verbs. This writing exercise, by forcing you to hold off on modifiers altogether, will challenge you to choose your nouns and verbs with care.

(You can find other exercises on craft here.)

Difficulty: Average
Time Required: 2-4 hours in two separate sittings

Here's How:

  1. In the process of writing your next story, choose to write one or two scenes without the use of adjectives or adverbs.
  2. As you write, take time to focus on how the correct verb or noun can convey the mood or feeling you are striving for in the scene.
  3. After a few days or a week, re-read the scenes. Note how your writing changed as a result of the exercise.
  4. Add modifiers where you feel them to be essential to the piece.
  5. You can also do this exercise with something you have already written, removing the modifiers to see if that strengthens the work.

Tips:

  1. Beware of reliance on common modifiers such as "pretty," "little," and "very." Strunk and White in "The Elements of Style" are particularly ruthless when it comes to these types of overused qualifiers, referring to them as "The leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words."
  2. Don't be afraid to go back to using modifiers to a certain extent; you'll find very few examples of writers who don't use them. Think of this exercise more as training for a race. Weights are great during training, but you don't wear them the day of the race.
  3. If this exercise hasn't convinced you, listen to Mark Twain: "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."

What You Need

  • Time and space alone.
  • Paper or computer.
  • Pen (or computer).
  • Ideas for a story or scenes from a story.
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