Over-Modified, Under-Specified

A mysterious stranger
joins forces with a notorious desperado
to protect a beautiful widow
from a ruthless assassin working for . . .
the railroad.

Yes, this was an actual movie description on a to-remain-unnamed streaming service. I understand the breathless tone when you’re going for the click, but too much proposal writing is also of this sort: loud with extraneous modifiers, yet silent where it should speak.

The first problem: Extraneous modifiers

  • Mysterious stranger – Is there such a thing as a familiar, known, regular or usual stranger?
  • Notorious desperado – Are desperados ever anything but notorious: ill-famed, dishonourable, disreputable, wicked, and smelly to boot?
  • Beautiful widow – Is a movie widow who is being protected by someone she just met ever less than pleasingly pretty?
  • Ruthless assassin – Are there kind, compassionate, humane and merciful assassins in your world?

I didn’t think so.

Write with nouns and verbs,
not with adverbs and adjectives.

The Elements of Style is dated and no rule is absolute anyway — Modifiers often add clarity — but it’s a dictum worth considering. When the noun carries the adjective — mysterious stranger, notorious desperado, beautiful movie-widow, ruthless assassin — we do well to avoid them. When the adjectives are fluffy, vague, or non-specific, we do well to avoid them too:

As for the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.
– Mark Twain, as attributed.

The second problem: Silent where it should speak

I’m still wondering what kind of railroad it was. Here, our modifier-happy writer was seized by an unexpected reticence: We are left hanging on pertinent points. Is it a transcontinental railroad? Regional? Inter-city? Commuter? Small-gauge? Heavy rail? Steam? Funicular? We are doomed never to know.

Don’t modify: Specify.

Of course, it isn’t a rule (and no rule is absolute anyway) but it is something to consider.  It’s definitely harder than inserting unquantifiable adjectives — Dare I say content-free adjectives? I do. — but you might come to like the result.

 

2 Comments

  1. Jim Taylor

    100% agreement on nouns and verbs. One test I sometimes recommend — strike out all adjectives and adverbs, and see what you have left.
    But I think there’s a genre of writing that seeks, wants, intends to wallow in mellifluous emotions. It promises benign equanimity, serendipitous coincidences, loving harmony, reciprocal mutuality, ad nauseam. Editing that prose down to terse and concrete nouns and verbs doesn’t achieve whatever it is that that author hopes to achieve.
    Jim T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – There is indeed such a genre of writing: It just has no place in Proposal Land, IMHO. I suspect it’s used when a proposal doesn’t give the client something they value (or can’t identify same, at any rate).

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