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Journalism students just getting started in the craft of news writing tend to clog up their prose with too many adjectives and lots of boring, cliched verbs, when in fact, they should be doing the opposite. A key to good writing is to use adjectives sparingly while choosing interesting, unusual verbs that readers don't expect.
The following breakdown illustrates the effective use of adjectives.
There's an old rule in the writing business - show, don't tell. The problem with adjectives is that they don't show us anything. In other words, they rarely if ever evoke visual images in readers' minds, and are just a lazy substitute for writing good, effective description.
Look at the following two examples:
- The man was fat.
- The man's belly hung over his belt buckle and there was sweat on his forehead as he climbed the stairs.
See the difference? The first sentence is vague and lifeless. It doesn't really create a picture in your mind.
The second sentence, on the other hand, evokes images through just a few descriptive phrases - the belly hanging over the belt, the sweaty forehead. Notice that the word "fat" isn't used. It isn't needed. We get the picture.
Here are two more examples.
- The sad woman cried at the funeral.
- The woman's shoulders shook and she dabbed at her moist eyes with a handkerchief as she stood over the casket.
Again, the difference is clear. The first sentence uses a tired adjective - sad - and does little to describe what is happening. The second sentence paints a picture of a scene that we can readily imagine, using specific details - the shaking shoulders, the dabbing of the wet eyes.
Hard-news stories often don't have the space for long passages of description, but even just a few keywords can convey to readers a sense of a place or a person. But feature stories are perfect for descriptive passages like these.
The other problem with adjectives is that they can unwittingly transmit a reporter's bias or feelings. Look at the following sentence:
- The plucky demonstrators protested the heavy-handed government policies.
See how just two adjectives - plucky and heavy-handed - have effectively conveyed how the reporter feels about the story. That's fine for an opinion column, but not for an objective news story. It's easy to betray your feelings about a story if you make the mistake of using adjectives this way.
Editors like the use of verbs because they convey action and give a story a sense of movement and momentum. But too often writers use tired, overused verbs like these:
- He hit the ball.
- She ate the candy.
- They walked up the hill.
Hit, ate and walked - booooring! How about this:
- He swatted the ball.
- She gobbled the candy.
- They trudged up the hill.
See the difference? The use of unusual, off-the-beaten-path verbs will surprise readers and add freshness to your sentences. And anytime you give a reader something they don't expect, they're bound to read your story more closely and more likely to finish it.
So get out your thesaurus and hunt down some bright, fresh verbs that will make your next story sparkle.
The larger point is this, as journalists, you are writing to be read. You can cover the most important topic known to man, but if you write about it in dull, lifeless prose, readers will pass your story by. And no self-respecting journalist wants that to happen - ever.