7 Ways to Kill Your Modifiers

I like to say “there’s no such thing as business writing.” Okay, there is.  It’s called “sucks.” From where I sit, “business writing” refers to strings of meaningless modifiers interrupted periodically by bland verbs and flabby nouns.  Thankfully, we readers have hope.  And our hope comes from science, not from the English Department. Here’s what I mean.

Dan Zarrella, the social media scientist, has determined that nouns and verbs work, adjectives and adverbs choke.  Here’s the sharebility of various kinds of words:

Active verbs zoom around Facebook while adverbs die on the author’s wall. That’s because modifiers usually weaken a sentence. They encourage writers to use imprecise nouns and dull verbs. For example:

Dull: He walked quickly through the room.

Not Dull:  The tomcat tore through the kitchen.

Both sentences describe the same event and the same actor.  The latter conveys movement and excitement, while the former induces sleep.

Here’s an exercise. Take some piece of your writing and do the following:

  1. Circle all the adjectives and adverbs.  (Just in case you don’t know, adverbs modify verbs and adjectives modify nouns.)
  2. Delete the ones that weaken the sentence.  For example “He was a brave and valiant soldier,” feels weak compared to “He was a soldier.”
  3. Replace weaker nouns with more specific ones. (“Soldier” becomes “warrior.")
  4. Repeat for verbs. (“Walked” becomes “tore.”)
  5. Edit out the modifiers if their opposites would sound ridiculous. For example, “Our software is fast, flexible, and easy to use,” is weak because no one would tell you their software is slow, inflexible, and cumbersome by design.  (Hat tip Guy Kawasaki.)
  6. Replace adjectives that make important points with anecdotes that convey the message more powerfully.  You say, “She’s a compassionate animal lover.” Try instead, “She has taken in over forty rescued dogs and cats, giving them loving foster care until the animals were adopted.”
  7. Restore the (few) modifiers you just can’t live without.  Sometimes, you need to say “the red dress.”

These seven steps will leave your paper stronger, more readable, and more shareable.  Your readers won’t know why it’s so good, just that it’s really good.

If you get any compliments on this new style, please comment below.