How the Written Universe Works part 6 – modifiers, descriptors, and quantifiers #amwriting

The written universe can seem like a cold, unfriendly place to new writers. At first, it is difficult to find other writers, and we wonder if we are alone in the universe. When we finally are able to see across the void, we discover writing groups in our local area.

How the written universe works 6We are not alone. We are part of a vast cosmos of authors much like us, some far more advanced and others less so.

At times, we wonder if our star will ever shine as brightly as theirs.

We attend groups and submit our best work. In the beginning, we feel bombarded with reprimands, x-rays highlighting our beloved narrative’s flaws.

  • Show it, don’t tell it.
  • Simplify, simplify.
  • Don’t write so many long sentences.
  • Don’t be vague—get to the point.
  • Don’t use “ten-dollar words.”
  • Cut the modifiers—they muck up your narrative.

These comments are painful but necessary. This knowledge enables us to produce work our readers will find enjoyable.

However, all rules can be taken to an extreme. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. The most important rules are:

  • Trust yourself,
  • Trust your reader.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write what you want to read.

We must understand how to balance mechanics and grammar and other obvious rules and still write with our own voice and style.

Participating in a critique group requires delicacy and dedication. It also involves restraint and the ability to allow other authors to write their own work. A group shouldn’t micromanage a manuscript, as too much input and direction can remove the author’s unique voice from a piece.

One of the admonitions we regularly hear refers to the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we might habitually use. As writers, we all want to be accepted and have others like our work, but we must write from the heart. That means using modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they are needed.

Chuck Wendig, in his post The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, says,

And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know. [1]

When we read, we see that certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase wordiness. These words hamper our ability to suspend our disbelief when used too freely.

These words fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. During NaNoWriMo, I don’t self-edit as I go because, at that point, I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail. We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” “besides.”

Descriptors: Adverbs and adjectives, known as descriptors, are helper nouns or verbs, words that help describe other words. However, they can be reviled by writing groups armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

Many descriptors are easy to spot as they often end with the letters “ly.” When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly,” and a list will pop up in my left margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

It’s a daunting task, but I look at each instance and see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change or remove it.

Quantifiers: abstract nouns (or noun phrases) meant to convey a vague number or impression, such as: very, a great deal of, a good deal of, a lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which shows a thought or idea that doesn’t have a physical or concrete existence.

Removing descriptors and quantifiers often strengthens the prose by eliminating the sense of vagueness. If they are necessary, I leave them. As Chuck Wendig said, words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

I don’t see myself reading a book written with no adverbs whatsoever.

Sometimes I feel married to a particular passage. Even so, certain words and phrases don’t add to the narrative and only serve to increase the wordiness. Used too freely, they make the story seem unreal, and that is something we don’t want. These are known as “weed words.”

Before I bother a professional editor with my work, I seek out the words I would flag as an editor, making what is called a “global search.”

Caution: if you are hasty or impatient, a global search can be dangerous. This is a boring, time-consuming task. Don’t take shortcuts. If you panic and choose to “Replace All,” you risk ruining your work.

The word “very” is a quantifier. It attracts abuse in writing groups and writers’ chat rooms and is considered a weed word.

Perhaps you decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because you have discovered you overuse it. You open the navigation pane and the advanced search dialog box. Next, you don’t key anything in the “Replace With” box, thinking this will eliminate the problem.

Before you click “replace all,” consider three common words that have the letters v-e-r-y in their makeup:

  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Everything

A hard truth about weed words is that they are often components of larger words.

Examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? You may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word when speaking.

However, if you have used “actually” to describe an object, it’s probably unnecessary.

Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You have already spent a year or more writing that novel. Why not take a few days to do the job right?

There is no quick way to do this. Every aspect of editing must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

weak-words-LIRF04262022Feel free to copy the above image and save it to your files as a .png or .jpeg, and also the modifiers as connectors image, above right.

As I have mentioned before, editing programs are available, some free, and some for an annual fee. Your word processing program has spell check, which can help or hinder you. Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work. Unfortunately, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing.

We define context as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect. 

A person with limited knowledge of grammar and mechanics won’t benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. This is because these programs operate by algorithms and finite rules.

The program will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation. I recommend investing in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Look things up and learn how grammar works.

I don’t mind taking the time to visit each problem and resolve them one at a time. I see this as part of my job, just what an author does to make sure her work is finished to the best of her ability.



How the Written universe works part 1: the connecting particle 

How the Written universe works part 2: the physics of conversation 

How the Written Universe Works part 3: Lay, Lie, Laid

How the Written Universe Works part 4: Relativity and Possessives 

How the Written Universe Works part 5: ellipsis, em dash, hyphen, semicolon 

Credits and Attributions:

[1] The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, by Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds,  The Ramble,  ©2017. Accessed 25 April 2022.


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11 responses to “How the Written Universe Works part 6 – modifiers, descriptors, and quantifiers #amwriting

  1. I’m happy to see you mention context. Too many posts condemn certain words as “weak” or otherwise bad. After reading those, some writers may conclude their work is substandard and give up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Audrey! I worry about that too. I think overuse is what weakens many words, and if they are used where they aren’t needed. I’m bad at that in my first drafts, because I write as if I were speaking, and I have lazy speech habits. But it is too easy to accidentally gut a narrative but being overzealous.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for these very useful advices, Connie! It forces me to grow my vocabulary. 😉 As i know from my mother language and scientific work the only way to do is reading, reading and reading. xx Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are amazing. I find it difficult to speak the two (foreign to me) languages I have had some limited exposure to – Deutsch and Spanish. I understand some words when I see them written, but it amazes me when people speak more than one language as fluently as you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, i am blushing, Connie! I am now feeling ver honored, but honestly in the past i would have had much time for better skills in English. But i had decided to study the old Greeks and Romans. 😉 We could update your German? 😉 Have a beautiful weekend! xx Michael

        Liked by 1 person