Weak adjectives and adverbs are usually the first words to be tackled in the editing phase, but you can improve your writing skills by choosing these more wisely in your early drafts too. Each time you select a noun or verb, and then use another word (or a string of words) to modify it, you weaken the quality of your writing.

Here are some of the effects modifiers have on readers. Adjectives will be discussed in this article, and a later article will deal with adverbs and active verbs.

Overused Modifiers Don’t Register

The beautiful girl
The tall, dark, handsome man
The lovely day
The quaint town

If you think your character is “beautiful”, show your readers what that means to you. Do you mean “inner beauty” that shines through and gives her a deeper radiance, or do you mean “superficial, airbrushed looks”?

Describe what it is about her that readers need to judge her on. Here you, as a writer, give up control in exchange for drawing your reader in more deeply. Allowing readers to make up their own minds gives them ownership in the story, which in turn makes them care more about the outcome.

Not every reader will decide your character is beautiful, but ask yourself whether it matters that the reader feels exactly the same way you do. If one reader decides she’s smart and tough, another thinks she’s kind, and another picks up that she tries hard to understand concepts that she finds difficult – at least your readers have an opinion about her.

The Rhythm of Modifiers Can Be Jarring

You can unintentionally create a cadence with too many modifiers in a paragraph. This is especially true for two adjectives before a noun – it always reminds me of the opening beat for Queen’s We Will Rock You.

The tall, blond man opened the big, wooden box, revealing a strange, red shape on a smooth, satin cushion.

Modifiers Can Contradict Each Other

Occasionally a writer might choose a list of modifiers that contradict or even cancel each other out.

It was a dark and stormy night.

It won’t be completely dark if the storm includes lightning.

The dark, gloomy house.

Think about this one for a moment. Is your visual image of a “dark house” the same as your image of a “gloomy house”? What exactly does the author mean by “gloomy” – “depressing”, or “low-level lighting”? If the latter meaning is chosen, “gloomy” cancels out “dark”, since it refers to some light source, albeit inadequate.

Checking your adjectives gives you an opportunity to improve your writing and give your story depth and meaning.

This article was first published on BellaOnline in May 2007. © Elsa Neal

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If you need help replacing your adjectives with stronger words you might like to have these books to hand:

The Highly Selective Dictionary of Golden Adjectives
There's a Word for It