Writing 101: Block Those Adjectives

By Mike Feinsilber

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 exaggerate. They invite skepticism, maybe even cynicism. 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, 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.

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

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

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

Comments

  1. Eugene Carlson says:

    “Tragic death.”” Dying is sad, to be sure, but inevitable. It doesn’t need embellishment. Is is seldom tragic. Very seldom.

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