Updated October 2023
A friend of mine was subjected to (her term) a corporate writing workshop by an acclaimed trainer who offered a series of rapid fire "rules" for making writing better. My pal, already a solid writer, thought most of the rules were "yes, but" directives, meaning that they require more than blind following. Case in point:
Avoid the adjectives. Modifiers give only the illusion of meaning.
Not so fast.
How to use adjectives effectively
Who didn't pad a high school paper or two with unnecessary adjectives (and adverbs, too, probably) to make word count or make up for a lack of research? But if you create content without adjectives, it very likely would be "deadly dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL" (to borrow a line from Monty Python's Flying Circus). At the very least, you'd risk creating content that might not be detailed enough. Some content may not rely so heavily on apt descriptions so a modicum of adjectival use is indicated. But other writing needs adjectives to work. It's like the Three Bears fairy tale. You want to find a level of adjective use that's just right for your audience and your purpose.
How adjectives make content better
Adjectives are vital for product copy. Check out these actual bridal gown descriptions from a sponsored magazine spread. They're are OK without adjectives, but are unlikely to evoke emotion and "that's my dress!" from brides-to-be:
- The sparkly Beautiful Bling Wedding Dress. Feel pretty as a princess in this gown featuring a bodice embellished with sea pearls, bugle beads and crystals that falls into a full ruffled skirt with a chapel-length train. Available in white only.
- The convertible Banyan Gown. Perfect for the bride who appreciates a woman's prerogative to change her mind. Lace cap sleeves (optional) and ‘jewel’-encrusted bands highlight this elegant bodice that cascades into a pool of lace and tulle. Trumpet silhouette. Available in white, diamond white/pewter or light gold/champagne.
- The layered Seaside Fantasy Gown. A beach beauty will exude elegance in this mermaid dress of pearl silk chiffon over blush silk charmeuse with Chantilly lace with hand-embroidered insets. Available in white sand and beach.
- The 1920s-look Vintage Wedding Dress. Traditional brides will love the layers of flowing tulle, ruffles and appliqué that adorn this dropped-waist gown with sweep train. Available in ivory and white.
A better rule for modifiers
Instead of a sweeping directive like "Death to modifiers", try this:
Use adjectives judiciously to create specificity and detail that serves your audience and your purpose.
And when the copy is straight marketing, adjectives definitely meet audience needs and serve the selling purpose. Follow this advice to increase the descriptive power of your writing.