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.

Adjectives (and adverbs) are generally unneeded. Adjectives exaggerate. They invite skepticism, maybe even cynicism. 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.

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

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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