Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Telling Terms

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Telling Terms

Article excerpt

Savvy writers let nouns and verbs do most of the work. Instead of "very deep canyon," they write "chasm." Instead of "walked clumsily" they come up with "stumble?'

Still, all those adjectives and adverbs exist for a reason. Sometimes they can express nuances that exist beyond the power of the most accurate nouns and verbs.

Accomplished writers nonetheless turn to modifiers with care. They know that artistic pretension lurks in the language's descriptive words, that lurid excess can easily trap them in thickets of purple prose.

Such a writer, warns Bill Blundell in The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, loses all sense of proportion. "Gripped by his muse" Blundell continues, "he reels off a passage slathered with pretty adjectives and plops it into his tale like a cannonball into a kettle of soup. It's florid, excessive, jarring, but the more he looks at it the more he loves it. It is Art. It is Him. If an editor tries to excise it, the writer will leap at his jugular?"

An unseemly deluge of garish modifiers will jar readers like cymbals clanging in a church sanctuary. Chances are it also will stray from a story's theme or story line. Flowery writers seldom confine themselves to modifiers that relate to a central point. "By contrast," Blundell notes, "the trained storyteller serves readers by using description only with certain purposes in mind. The highest of these" he adds, "is story progression?"

Modifiers that accomplish that end share certain characteristics. They're original, for one thing. Nothing accomplishes less than those knee-jerk modifiers that automatically attach themselves to some nouns. Who needs to hear about one more spitired chase"? Or another "troubled teen-ager"? And haven't we all had enough of "angry mobs" "nasty cuts" an "trying times"?

Because they're original, good modifiers are usually surprising. Blundell himself once described a row of cowboys sitting along a bunkhouse porch in "rumpsprung old chairs?'

Strong modifiers al, 0 evoke dear images. Writers who consistently pick winners look for specific adjectives and adverbs. They avoid the ladder of abstraction's top rungs, there vague modifiers look out over huge vistas. Instead of writing that the cook was experienced, one of the writers at my newspaper described her as ;he stood at the stove, "lips pressed tightly together, pushing a burn-scarred wooden spoon around the saucepan,

When it come to abstract modifiers, two of the worst offenders are "many" and "very?' Each has some value in certain rare instances. …

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