The Well-Dressed Word--Some thoughts on the use of modifiers

There comes a time in nearly every writer’s life when one realizes that one may, in fact, be committing the literary equivalent of a fashion faux pas.

That moment occurred for me somewhere between twelve and fifteen years ago—the timing is hazy, but the event is still clear. A manuscript I had sent out that was very much not-ready-for-prime-time returned with a note scribbled on the front page. Someone had taken the time to point out to me that the manuscript was over-written.

It was probably one of the most important critiques I’ve ever gotten, and led to me taking my craft a lot more seriously.

So what does it mean to over-write something? For this, I’m going to draw on a visual metaphor, that of the best- and worst-dressed lists that always pop up around Oscar time every year.

If there’s one commonality between the dresses that make up the best-dressed list, it’s that most of them are less complicated than you’d expect them to be. In many cases, they’re closely fitted between shoulder and hip, following the contours of the body beneath without being tastelessly tight. Embellishments are carefully placed, so as to add to the beauty of the whole without overpowering it.

If there’s a commonality between the dresses on the worst-dressed list, it’s that they tend to be dominated by other things. Mounds of ruffles, overly-puffed sleeves, bows that are big enough to tie up a cargo ship, cut-outs and deep necklines that make you wonder how the woman in them stays just this side of a wardrobe malfunction. The embellishments shout ‘look at me, aren’t I clever, aren’t I daring’, putting the woman in the embarrassing situation of having to admit that perhaps her taste in clothes needs some refining.

Modifiers can be compared to the embellishments on a dress. Your use of them can put you either on the best-dressed or the worst-dressed list, and which one is which may not be what you’re expecting.

Just as fashions differ a bit from country to country, to a certain extent, the use of modifiers, the adjectives and adverbs that enhance your nouns and verbs, will be determined by what is the accepted norm in whatever genre you write in. (And if you’re not reading in your chosen genre to find these things out, why aren’t you?) Science fiction/Fantasy requires a lot more description because the worlds in which the stories are set are not the one we live in. Romance has its own set of modifiers. Mystery/Crime fiction is often tightly written, the modifiers few and well chosen in order to facilitate a fast read. Literary fiction tends to be very word-conscious, and certainly has its share of verbal peacockery.

One thing that’s true in all genres, though, is that there comes a point where the modifiers stop adding beauty and become an author’s way of shouting, ‘Look at me, aren’t I the clever one? Aren’t you impressed with my vocabulary?’ Unless you are writing for a very particular audience, the answer to that would be a resounding, ‘No.’

Like the overly puffy sleeves, the excess ruffles, and the bows that are so big that you risk putting someone’s eye out with the corners every time you turn around, flowery language can do more to obscure the natural beauty of your prose than enhance it. If you notice in your work that every noun and every verb carries a modifier or two, you’re over-writing. If you can go through and cut most of your adverbs and adjectives without making the meanings of your sentences unclear, you’ve been over-writing. If you run a search for ‘ly’ words and end up with your manuscript swimming in blue highlights, you’ve over-written. (Some people advocate not using adverbs at all, but there are extremists in every group.)

Embellishments used sparingly can make a dress with simple, classic lines into something elegant and memorable. Embellishments used to excess turn that same dress into a framework for hanging embellishments on. How can you tell which is which?

The fact is, as writers, we’re in love with words and what we can do with them. Especially in our early stages, we’re excited about those bows and ruffles and can be blind to the fact that we’re over-using them. This is where having a critique group or at least a critique partner can be very useful. Not everyone is going to agree on what’s too much in the modifier department, but if you find that everyone is remarking on the same things, it would be a good idea to look at those things to see what needs changing. In the end, it always comes back to what’s best for the story. We may love the way we phrased something, but if our words are drawing attention to themselves rather than moving the story along, we may have to ‘kill our darlings’ for the sake of the whole.

And don’t forget that reading is one of the best ways to understand what works and what doesn’t. Read what the best writers in your genre have to offer. If you read something that’s not so good, you can learn from that as well by trying to pinpoint why the prose isn’t working for you.

Just like those designer dresses that make the best-dressed lists, prose that is elegant and memorable is both deceptively simple and difficult to achieve. Both require observation of what others have done, and practice until the final product is sleek and embellished in just the right way to bring out its beauty. People may never ‘see’ the work you put in, but they will remember the final product.


purplume said...

oh dear, I have just been enjoying writing dialog for an overly wordy character - worst worded list contender.

Pepper Smith said...

There are always exceptions, especially when writing characters who are overly wordy. Sometimes that's just the way characters are.

This has more to do with writing that tends toward purple prose, which is the over-use of modifiers in flowery language.