Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 3

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 3 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.


We want our writing to be expressive, to come alive with imagery and detail. But how much is enough and how much is too much?

Many novice writers tend to overuse adjectives and adverbs. We think if a verb or noun is descriptive, attaching modifiers will make the words more precise and visual. However, using too many weakens rather than strengthens your writing.

o Using multiple modifiers distracts the reader; by the time you get through all those words, your point is lost

o Attaching one modifier to each noun or verb can create a sing-song rhythm to the sentence, like a nursery rhyme.

o Filling in all the blanks can be boring because it leaves little to the reader’s imagination.

o Familiar pairing of adjectives and nouns (or adverbs and verbs) is often cliché.

o It can be lazy; you couldn’t find the exact word so you settled for a multi-part series.

o All those extra words, descriptions, and phrases, and the associated punctuation they require, such as commas, apostrophes, and hyphens, tend to create long-winded, awkward sentences which do not engage the reader, and which in fact will often distract from the pace, the plot and the characters, and only serve to slow down the story. Get the point?

Noah Lukeman, author of “The First Five Pages”, suggests removing every adjective and adverb from your first page and then reading it aloud. Does it read as well or better than before? Has it lost any of its meaning?

Go back and read your first chapter with an eye on your modifiers. Highlight every adjective in one color and every adverb in another. How colorful are your pages now?


• Eliminate as many modifiers as possible. If you must use one, decide which is most important, and use the word that best conveys that point. For example, if your character has beautiful, long, lustrous, platinum blond hair, which adjective would be most useful in describing her?

• If you need an adjective, try substituting something unusual rather than the standard word – Duracell (copper topped) instead of redhead; driftwood hair instead of mousy brown.

• Eliminate modifiers by strengthening your verbs and nouns whenever possible.

• Substitute an analogy or comparison (instead of ‘she had beautiful long lustrous platinum blond hair’; try ‘she looked like a walking Pantene ad’).

• Change the description altogether. Perhaps the hair was a way to convey her character; is she someone who we’d expect to have hair like that, or is it atypical for her?

• Many celebrated authors ignored this advice, if you want to emulate them, read their pages again and evaluate how they made it work.

Next week, we’ll examine the meaning of SHOW, DON’T TELL

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