Monday, September 23, 2013

Self-Editing #4 - Choose Your Modifiers Carefully

Modifiers are words that modify other words; in other words, they make your words more complicated.

Word up?!

Today we're mainly addressing adverbs - words which modify a verb. They usually (but not always) end in 'ly'.

If you're pursuing a traditional contract, be warned: I learned the hard way that professionals see frequent use of adverbs as a mark of amateurish writing. Whether you like it or not, these words make your manuscript stand out for all the wrong reasons.

We'll attack modifiers in two steps. Today is the easier and more straightforward Unnecessary Modifiers Frequently Used (aka Another Seek and Destroy Mission). These are the words we probably don't need. Then in the next post, we’ll talk about those modifiers which should be replaced by action.

Step one of eradicating unnecessary modifiers (which are only a writer's friend when used with skill and dexterity... not impunity) is identifying common or invisible words you use too much. For me the following are the priority contenders:


These words crop up in my writing constantly - and can usually be deleted without any negative impact on the sentence. In fact, in every case where they can be cut out, the words flow more smoothly and the writing is more engaging without them. For example:

"I'd never really seen this side of him before." becomes "I'd never seen this side of him before."

"His eyes had just fallen on Dani again." becomes "His eyes fell on Dani again." [NB - We lost a 'had' there too!]

But those aren't the only modifiers creeping up behind and jumping into my sentences. Lesser, but perhaps even more insidious are:


"I could hardly wait." becomes "I couldn't wait."

""I know," he said simply." becomes ""I know," he said."

"Mr. Jamieson was clearly losing his touch." becomes "Mr. Jamieson was losing his touch."

I've said it before and you'll hear it again: These look like tiny changes, hardly worth the effort. But when you multiply each by dozens of occurences in a single manuscript, you find an overall lightening of the text. Your book reads more easily, more clearly, and more simply...

So here's your mission: Use this list (along with any words that come up in the comments) to do another seek and destroy. Then hang-ten for the next post because that's when the real work starts.

Good luck!

PS - You probably noticed I italicized all the modifiers in this post. Were they all necessary? No. But some of them were. You're going to have to make a judgement call during this mission. Just sayin'.

Next Post: When action should replace adverb.

Your Turn: What modifiers crop up in your writing too often? (I’ll add them to the list).


  1. 'Some' is a word I often overuse.

  2. "I learned the hard way that professionals see frequent use of adverbs as a mark of amateurish writing."

    Agreed. However in the end, the most important consideration is what the reader thinks.

    Another adverb to add to your list: very