Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett

Go easy on adjectives

As old school journalists, we were taught to write mainly with nouns and verbs. Editors let us use adjectives only if they make the meaning more precise.

And even then, subeditors would remove them as they tightened copy.

In Daily Mirror Style Keith Waterhouse describes the old school journalist’s view. He says:

Adjectives should not be allowed in newspapers unless they have something to say.

Writers think adjectives add colour to their words. They do. But colourful writing isn’t always easier to understand.

In volume one of Editing and Writing, another newspaper journalist Harold Evans says they give writing a “superficial glitter”.

He goes on to say:

Every adjective should be examined to see: is it needed to define the subject or is it there for emphasis?

Evans says “over-emphasis destroys credibility”.

Adjectives for emphasis

Take care when using adjectives for emphasis. For example, the word ‘very’ adds nothing to a phrase. Most of the time you can lose the word without changing any meaning.

The same usually applies to words like really, actually, rather and quite.

It also applies to the f-word. It may be fashionable to use it in today’s writing, but nine times out of ten all it does is function as a synonym for ‘very’.

Often there’s a better, more elegant way of expressing the same idea. “The train crawled into the station” is better than saying it was “very slow”.

In practice many adjectives have no substance. You can remove most from your sentences. You won’t lose much, but you will gain clarity.

On a personal note, publishers and others have paid me for years to write by the word. Loading my copy with lucrative filler words including adjectives makes economic sense. Over the years they have paid off my mortgage.

Yet my writing would certainly better without them.

A quick refresher:

Nouns are names of people, places, things and ideas.

Verbs are doing words. They tell you what is going on.

We say Adjectives modify nouns. They tell you what kind it is, how many there are and which one is being talked about.

Adverbs do the same job for verbs.