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