Ditch the adjectives

“Show don’t tell” can be a difficult concept for a young journalism students to grasp, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of peppering your writing with adjectives in an attempt to make it pop. Rookie mistake. It’s much better to put the kibosh on these offenders before deadline.

Deborah Potter posted recently on Advancing the Story about just how many reporters—both print and broadcast—succumb to the Shocking! Tragic! Unbelievable! way of writing when clear, specific details and strong verbs would be much more interesting. She wrote:

“Great writers seek and use specific details, not shopworn generalities, to convey information and emotion. Instead of telling the listener there’s been a tragic fire, provide the facts: Six members of one family were killed. The only survivor is a six-month-old boy, burned beyond recognition. And it happened on Christmas morning. Let the listener decide if that’s tragic.”

Of course, sometimes adjectives are necessary and deserve a stay, but unless your sentence will not make sense without it, best to get your red pen and start swiping. It sounds harsh, but your writing will be much better for it. And if you can’t part with all of your adjectives just yet, don’t feel too badly: it can take years to come to terms with the “no adjectives” rule.

And don’t forget: if there’s anything worse than adjectives, which modify nouns, when it comes to muddying up good writing, it’s adverbs, which modify verbs. Just say no to adverbs altogether. Or as one of my favourite journalism profs used to say: Boo adverbs!