About Writing

On Writing: Letting the Reader Think

By Mike Feinsilber

Back when I was the writing coach for the Washington bureau of the AP, I wrote a memo about the overuse of adjectives. A particular target was the word “very,” which I argued performs contrarily to the writer’s intention—it dilutes what the writer intended to underscore. “Very,” I said, was never useful.

One of the bureau’s best writers dissented in a mumble heard round the newsroom.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I think I’d rather be very rich than rich.”

But I cleave to my contention: adjectives (and adverbs) are generally unneeded. Adjectives exaggerate. They invite skepticism, maybe even cynicism. They add girth to your prose. Worse yet: They undercut the we’re-in-this-together partnership that should exist between writer and reader. They take away the reader’s role.

That’s especially the case with conclusionary adjectives which try to describe the situation as a whole. When you tell the reader that the situation is dramatic, amazing, unprecedented, historic (especially historic), a landmark, or extraordinary, you’ve taken from the reader his or her opportunity to think, “This is extraordinary.” There goes the writer/reader partnership.

Your sixth grade English teacher said it first: Show don’t tell.

What Mrs. Kindrid said was true. Not very true, just true.

For 50 years, Mike Feinsilber wrote and edited for United Press International in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and for The Associated Press in Washington. After retiring, he served as the writing coach in the AP’s Washington bureau.

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