Writing Advice

Too Many Pesky, Overdone, Redundant, Wordy Modifiers

By Aimee Lucido


In the immortal words of Mark Twain, “If you catch an adjective, kill it.” Maybe that’s an overstatement, but the abundance of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) is a red flag of amateur writing.


There are all sorts of ways to misuse modifiers. So many, in fact, that the first draft of this blog post was nearly 2000 words long. But I trimmed the fat, and now I’m going to talk about another way to trim the fat: minimizing modifiers. Here are two ways to cut out modifiers in your writing.


1) Run-On Adjectives


Run-on adjectives appear when a writer is struggling to describe something, and compensates by piling adjectives on top of adjectives, hoping at least one of them will stick. Sometimes these adjectives are redundant:


I’ve always despised long, flowery, overwrought prose.


And other times they give us too much information at once:


Annabelle ran her fingers through her long, brown, stick-straight hair.


Redundant run-ons always feel greedy to me. We shouldn’t hog all the adjectives, we should just choose our favorite and run with it:


I’ve always despised flowery prose.


Info-dump run-ons don’t give the reader enough time to let all the descriptors stick. Instead of cramming three adjectives in one sentence to describe Annabelle’s hair, we should take time and show what Annabelle’s hair looks like instead of telling.


Annabelle sat in front of her mirror as she brushed her hair. Not that her hair needed brushing. It was so straight that it never tangled, even though it reached past her waist. But she liked brushing it anyway because the light coming in from the window gave her brown hair honey highlights that all her sisters envied.


Every adjective we add is a break from the story. We’re pausing the flow of the narrative to give a descriptor, which is fine if the descriptor is essential, but distracting otherwise. Removing run-on adjectives makes our sentences lean and intentional.


2) The Band-Aid Adverb


Band-Aid adverbs are used to cover up a weak verb in a sentence. Words like “went” or “said” are not words that we try to fit into our story. They’re words that help us get from point A to point B. So when we find ourselves using “said” over and over again, we spice it up.


Let’s say we start with the following sentence:


“I don’t like him,” Sandra said to Kathy.


This sentence is boring, so, our first instinct as writers is to try and make it more interesting. If we aren’t thinking, we might do something like this:


“I don’t like him,” Sandra said quietly to Kathy.


This is an improvement, for sure, because now we get a tone of voice. But “said quietly” isn’t the best we can do. Instead of using a weak verb and a Band-Aid adverb, why don’t we just use a stronger verb?

“I don’t like him,” Sandra murmured to Kathy.


“Murmured” makes me think of Sandra croaking, maybe even crying.


“I don’t like him,” Sandra mumbled to Kathy.


“Mumbled” makes me think of someone who is shy and embarrassed.


“I don’t like him,” Sandra whispered to Kathy.


“Whispered” makes me think of little girls at their desks gossiping about the kids in their class. Even if Sandra and Kathy aren’t little kids, the image of them passing notes can be powerful.


Choosing a verb is a decision. It’s committing to a specific image and tone, and not just any word that gets the job done. Sure, all four of these sentences say essentially the same thing, but the imagery in each is different. And imagery is what writing is all about.


For more information on different ways to misuse modifiers, check out this article by William Noble, Don’t Use Adjectives and Adverbs to Prettify Your Prose.


We don’t want to cut out modifiers all together, but we don’t want to be greedy or lazy with how we use them. Modifiers are like salt. Too much and it’s all we can taste. But used sparingly, the dish will dance.

Write Female Characters, Not Sexy Cutouts

by Emily Kramer


Actually, that should be expanded to include all characters in literature. But as the “cutout” syndrome does afflict female characters with depressing frequency, I’ll keep it focused for now.


What is the “cutout” syndrome? They are characters that have no real impact on the story. Maybe they are placeholders for the reader – written so vaguely that anyone can take their place in the action. Maybe they serve to greater glorify the main character, or maybe they are a new breed – the female action figure. They are “badasses,” they fight, spy, maybe even lie – but they are still just reacting as the plot develops around them. They lack what author Chuck Wendig calls “agency” in his article How “Strong Female Characters” Still End Up Weak And Powerless (Or, “Do They Pass The Action Figure Test?”).


Writing strong female characters does not mean making them female Terminators – it means giving them the ability to choose, reasons for their actions and the determination to accomplish their goals. It means writing characters.

Don’t Hold Back the Diversity in Your Story

You may not think you need this. You may think, “I write what I know and the people that I know aren’t ‘diverse’ so I don’t need to write that into my experiences.” The thing is, we’re all diverse and the diversity conversation in literature, especially children’s literature, has been going on for decades. What seems to get lost in the oftentimes heated conversation is that diverse means differing from one another. Diversity, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.


Many times the diversity conversation is reduced to just more books by and about this race or culture so that, just like books with only Caucasian characters, we get books with only African American characters or only Muslim characters. In the grand scheme of publishing, books like this do add to the diversity of publishing. But now, instead of books with diverse casts that can appeal to wide audiences, we have a proliferation of niche books.


What our society is hopefully moving towards is true diversity – diversity within their stories. All authors, no matter what background, can create characters from different cultures (and we’re not just talking about race here—ability, sexual identity, gender identity, religion, geographic location, etc.) that interact with one another. That’s what being an author is all about—creating art…and art imitates life. Our lives are diverse and therefore our stories should be, too.


But how, you might ask? How can you be “authentic” in your writing? Everywhere you turn you’ll hear the word research recited over and over again. You’re going to read it here, again. Do your research.


  • Read books and articles written by people from the culture you’re trying to represent
  • Read things about the culture you’re trying to represent (to see how people outside the culture perceive your prospective character)
  • Engage in the community your character belongs to—talk to people that belong to the culture and ask respectful questions
  • Forge earnest relationships with people within the culture. You learn the most from people you consider friends, and you’ll do more to portray your character like a person, instead of succumbing to stereotypes, if you have someone that you like and respect who is a multidimensional in their own right on the other side of that portrayal.


There are SO MANY articles out there that touch upon writing respectfully and empathetically when writing outside your culture. A group of articles that we’d like to bring to light is the CBC Diversity Initiative’s Diversity 101 series. Started in 2013, the blog series was introduced by Arthur A. Levine imprint editor Cheryl Klein in the post Diversity 101: An Introduction. Her post explained that the series was created “to introduce people who are just starting to think about questions of diversity to some of the more common concepts and discussions, and to raise awareness of all of these matters.”


To date, there are 13 posts in this series where each individual asked to guest post provides a personal connection to the subject at hand, describes errors or stereotypes commonly seen when depicting the characters that the post is describing, highlights where authors can do better and, oftentimes, provides resources for further exploration. You can find links to all 13 posts here.


Always remember that, especially when writing for children, people deserve to see themselves represented in literature. It shows that they exist, they are worthy of art, which means that their experiences matter. At Quill Shift Literary Agency, we believe that writers should be encouraged to write about whoever and whatever they feel necessary, even if it leads them outside of their limited experiences. We advocate this because literature’s role is to expand minds and take people beyond what they know firsthand. That being said, we also want writers to understand that it’s a privilege to depict others and so if you’re going to do it, do it with care and respect.

Children’s Book Author Shares Insights on the Publishing Business

Publishing is not an easy business to break into, no matter from what direction you’re entering. You could be working towards a job at a publishing house, a bookstore, or writing a picture, middle grade, or young adult story. Jennifer Adams has written and published more than 20 books and has a thing or two to share about the business of publishing from an author’s perspective. In her guest post for the Daily Herald entitled Advice for publishing a children’s book, Jennifer tackles the misconceptions around what it means to publish and gives seven well-explained nuggets of wisdom for that any writer can employ to find their path to publication.


Our favorite? Number four:


Hang out with other writers

Many writers find it very helpful to join a writing group. It gives you deadlines, people to read and critique your work, and a support system.


More and more these days writing is not a solitary endeavor. Joining or forming a critique group, interacting with other writers of your genre online, or attending writing conferences are all great ideas. The people you surround yourself with affect you and your work. Finding the right balance between honing your craft by yourself and allowing trusted other writers in to help you progress is all part of the process to becoming a successful author.


Make sure you read the whole article and check out more Use Your Quill advice here.

Things to Remember When Self-Editing

Author C.S. Lakin provides ten useful reminders to writers as they progress through crafting their next masterpiece on the website Write to Done. Her advice within her post entitled How To Write Well: 10 Essential Self-Editing Tips goes from the simple “use commas” to the a little more tricky “watch your tenses.” What we really appreciate is that for most of her tips she provides quick and dirty examples to hammer her point home.


For example:


#8. Ditch extraneous tags when writing dialog.


If the reader knows who’s speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over — especially in a scene with only two characters.


Flowery verbs such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected, stick out. Instead, use said and asked, with an occasional replied or answered.


While reading through piles of submissions, sometimes it’s easier for agents to look for reasons to say no rather than reasons to say yes to a manuscript. There are just so many amazing stories out there and so little time in the day to get to all of them. Taking these self-editing tips to heart and utilizing them for your next story may increase your chances of providing less reasons for agents to pass, allowing the real qualities of your story to shine through.

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