Nix the Modifiers! A Writing Exercise

St. Augustine Florida

If you have a creative writing bent, I have a challenge for you. Write a descriptive paragraph without any adjectives or adverbs. (Adjectives are words that describe nouns, “red” and “big.” Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs and often end in “ly,” “steadily” and “quietly.”)

I have a love-hate relationship with this exercise. I love it because it forces me to write with the utmost care, to improve, but I hate it because it’s so much easier to be lazy and let all the descriptors do the work for me. I was introduced to this method in my fiction workshop days (thanks, Ari), and I just prayed that I wouldn’t be the one who got picked to read her work aloud.

If you’ve ever been in a writing class, you’re familiar with the instruction to “show, don’t tell,” and although adjectives and adverbs aren’t necessarily of the devil, if you’re not careful, they contribute to “telling” writing. It’s easy to say, “She was mad.” It’s much harder to describe someone who is mad and let the reader draw the conclusion him- or herself.

It is difficult, not to mention time-consuming to write something without any adjectives or adverbs—especially when you realize that helpful transitional words such as “now,” “most,” “always,” and “never” are on the list. If forced to think creatively, however, a writer can describe with carefully chosen nouns and verbs. For instance, instead of writing “swimsuit,” use “bikini” or “Speedo.” Or try “mom-jeans” or “bellbottoms” instead of “pants.” You get a better visual, don’t you?

Below are three examples of what a student could write in a “what I did this summer” kind of assignment. (Hint-hint, teachers—this is a way to make them really hate you!) The first is chock-full of modifiers. The second is devoid of a single one. Once you’re able to write a descriptive sentence or two without any adjectives or adverbs, you’re ready to selectively (ah—there’s a useful adverb!) add them again, and that’s what I’ve done in the third case. See what you think. . . and take on the challenge if you dare.


Adjectives and Adverbs Galore:

Now that we’re back from vacation, I’ve swapped stories with my friends. While many of them spent their summers driving the winding roads through the mountains, sipping iced tea on quaint porches in New England, or voyaging abroad through the much more comfortable or—let’s face it—often chilly terrains of England, Ireland, France, and Spain, I had a good old-fashioned staycation, right here on the southeast coast of the United States. With my trusty, lemonade-filled red cooler, my favorite, polka-dotted beach towel, a ridiculously huge beach umbrella, and not a few novels from my to-read list, I lived the Floridian lifestyle to the fullest, throwing in a trip to St. Augustine (good art galleries, shopping, plus a history lesson or three), and even a trip down to theme-park central, Orlando. I visited my favorite childhood haunt, Disney World, as well as Universal Islands of Adventure, washing the heat away with a refreshing mug of butterbeer. Alas, all good things must come to an end—at least temporarily—because we’re back to school again. I sit inside, looking out upon a world that will most likely continue to be scorching hot for another couple months, savoring the sweet memories of warm sand between my toes and tart, thirst-quenching sips of lemonade while reading for myself and no one else.


Almost As Sparse as It Gets:

Back from vacation, I’ve swapped stories with friends who traveled to the mountains, New England, and Europe. I could be jealous, considering I didn’t set foot out of Florida. Despite the heat, however, I enjoyed my summer at home. Armed with my cooler, towel, umbrella, and books, I soaked up the sun—and novels—at the beach. I did wander out of town upon occasion—to St. Augustine (art, shopping, and history), Disney World (revisiting my childhood), and Universal Islands of Adventure (butterbeer, hurray!). School brought us back. I sit inside, looking out on a world that will be hot into the fall, but I savor my memories—of sand between my toes, a cooler full of lemonade. . . and books.


Something a Little in Between:

Upon returning from summer vacation, my friends and I swapped stories. Many of them traveled to places much cooler than here, from the mountains to New England and even Europe. I could be jealous, but I really did enjoy my staycation, hot as it was. Armed with my lemonade-filled cooler, favorite beach towel, enormous umbrella, and a number of books from my to-read list, I spend most of my days at the beach. There were a handful of mini-trips, including St. Augustine (shopping, art appreciation, and history all rolled into one), Disney World (tapping my inner child), and Universal Islands of Adventure (my first taste of butterbeer). Too soon, though, we’re back at school, looking out on a world that will only cool slightly before October. I will savor my memories, however, of sand between my toes, the tart refreshment of lemonade, and my fill of fiction.

2 thoughts on “Nix the Modifiers! A Writing Exercise

  1. jolafson says:

    awwk!! A world without adjectives and adverbs would be so much more grEy! I am guilty to the nth degree of being wordy, which is I guess why I am not an author. But i simply LOVE words.

    • Agreed–about the world without adjectives and adverbs, that is. You write very well–and know all the grammar rules, to boot. There are plenty of author-offenders out there, and anyone who wants to write could benefit from being more exacting with regard to word choices. I love cookies, but I appreciate them even more when I have them as a treat instead of all the time (although I’d much rather be on a cookie diet!).

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