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.


  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.

Speak Your Mind