The billboard featured a close-up of a large slice of steaming pizza. And the headline said: “Ooey Gooey Pizza.” A woman walking by (and this is a true story taken from a respected medical journal) read the billboard and then promptly lurched into some nearby bushes to throw up.
Now, granted, this was a pretty severe reaction to a mere headline. In her case, it was brought on by a bad case of morning sickness (or, in the medical journal’s technical terms: “severe pregnancy related emesis.”)
But I can relate. When I read too many adjectives in copy, it makes me want to lose my lunch, too.
Why are adjectives so bad?
Before I explain what
’s wrong with adjectives, let’s have a quick refresher class. As you probably remember from school, adjectives are words that describe nouns.
For example, pink, hideous, irritating, lovely, muffled, magnificent, scrawny, gorgeous, tart and grumpy, are all adjectives. Adjectives don’t have a to be just one word – they can be hyphenated, like triangle-shaped or two words, like ooey goey.
In school, teachers often tried to encourage us to use more adjectives in our compositions. I don’t know about you, but I remember being urged to scamper to the thesaurus to “improve” my writing by adding more adjectives.
Trouble is, as a strategy, this is just wrong, wrong, wrong.
The three main problems with adjectives
There are lots of difficulties with adjectives, but here are the three main ones…
1) Adjectives are imprecise. For words that are supposed to improve your writing, it’s awfully funny how vague adjectives can be. Take the word magnificent, mentioned above. Does it mean imposing (like a magnificent lion), awe-inspiring (like a magnificent sunset), noble (like a magnificent king) or grand (like a magnificent Manhattan apartment)? Many adjectives are a bit like the bubble-wrap you find surrounding cross-country courier envelopes – they hide and cushion rather than reveal.
2) Adjectives mean different things to different people. And here’s where you really get into trouble. The copy writer in our pizza story assumed that ooey gooey = a good thing. But, as you can see, some people think ooey gooey = a disgusting thing. When words are imprecise, you lose control over the meaning the reader takes in. And this can spell disaster for copy writing.
3) Adjectives sound too hype-y and sales-y.Today’s reader, beset with marketing, cross-marketing and sales messages where ever he or she turns, is more cynical than ever before. Readers are looking for solid information from sources they can trust. But if your website is filled with adjectives, you’re going to sound like you’re selling all the time. This will turn readers off. Look at this sentence for example: Pristine beaches, abundant wildlife, and scores of Miami scene-makers make Fort Lauderdale a year-round hot spot. Doesn’t that make you suspicious rather than intrigued? Doesn’t it sound as though the writer is trying too hard? It’s the adjectives that cause the problem.
So, if not adjectives, then what?
But here’s the big secret your grade 10 writing teacher probably didn’t tell you. Good writing is
Verbs – words like run, carry, heft, prevail – embody action. Often described as the “workhorse” of the sentence, verbs power your writing. Consider these ones for example: squander, obstruct, plunder, poach. Each a single word and each freighted with meaning. You wouldn’t think one word could carry such impact. But good verbs don’t just tell the story – they create a picture in the reader’s mind.
How you can harness the power of verbs:
If you want to amp up your verbs here are some strategies you can use:
Whenever possible, try to replace “state of being” verbs — is, am, were, was, are, be, being, been – with action verbs. (Use the search key – control + F – then type in “is” or “was” and see how many times you can eliminate it.) For example: “Jerome was an A+ student” could become “Jerome earned straight As at school.”
Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.
Watch for the chance to use verbs that reflect sound – the baby gurgled; the girls shrieked.
Use a notebook or a computer file to keep a list of powerful verbs you stumble across in your reading – then work to incorporate them in your own writing. Watch particularly for offbeat and unusual uses of verbs. For example: “The crowd cascaded along the street before it was swallowed by the park.” Cascaded and swallowed are not two verbs you’d expect in a sentence like that – and that makes them all the more powerful.
Conversion = action
The bottom line? Forget about adjectives – they’re as floppy as a gaggle of 98-lb weaklings. Verbs, on the other hand, are the muscle-men of the beach.
And after all, if your goal is to make your readers ACT, doesn’t it make sense to focus on the ACTion words in your writing?
Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach with an international practice. Would you like to write better, faster? Sign up for her free weekly writing tip, Power Writing, at her website, www.publicationcoach.com