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
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 not about adjectives. It’s about VERBS.
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:
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.”
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
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