Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Over-modification

When you're revising, watch for the "excessive" modifiers that
1) might make you sound gushy, and
2) weigh down the clarity of your prose.

That last is a bit counter-intuitive, because you modify in order to increase clarity by making everything more precise, right?

But you might be drawing attention to something that doesn't need more attention, or amplifying a perfectly good word, or making other unmodified words pale in contrast.

He shouted loudly into the wind.

She bit back an obscene swear word.

The vista was filled with toweringly high mountains.

The top of her knee was a little bit more than an inch below the bottom of her skirt.

The hole in the fusillade was immoderately large.


Beware of inadvertent humor. I mean, really, any hole in the fusillade is way too large, wouldn't you say?

Of course, sometimes it works to over-modify (especially for comic effect). But this is something to watch for. "An inch below the bottom of her skirt" is a good description. "A little bit more than an inch" makes me envision some nun with a ruler measuring the space. Precision is actually distracting sometimes.

And especially watch out for redundancy. Mountains are high, but some are higher than others, so maybe we will allow "high mountains" (I did grow up in a valley below some not very high mountains, I guess-- 3000-4000 feet, so I'd allow "high mountains" if you're talking about the Rockies, say). But "toweringly high?" Come on.

If you need to trim 1000 words or so from your manuscript, here's where to start. Delete the over-modifiers, and I bet you won't miss them. (I just deleted "even" there before "miss"-- "even miss them". See, it's easy once you set your mind to it.)

Alicia

34 comments:

Murphy said...

Crapatola! Are you perhaps referring to my creaking and moaning gate? Hey, in my defense I gave the darn thing a squirt of WD40 and it’s much quieter now. In fact, my heroine may be saved from the predictable wince. ;D

Edittorrent said...

Maybe it's a haunted gate?
A

Murphy said...

Shhh...it's a secretly haunted gate because you can't hear the damned thing anymore. And, now when it slams the heroine in the ass on her way out of the spooky graveyard, won't she be surprised? Maybe I should revise my earlier assessment and say that it's a sneaky and secretly haunted gate. NO, it's a cheeky, sneaky and secretly haunted gate - how's that?

Edittorrent said...

Works for me! Especially with the sneakiness. I think ghosts are sneaky.

green_knight said...

This might not hold true all the time, but whenever I find myslf reaching for a strong of adjectives, it's because the thing I describe is important. And if it's important, I usually need to dig deeper and bring that importance to light - not just with a couple of words, but with specific detail (rather than clichees) or by giving it just that little bit more space.

The vista was filled with toweringly high mountains is a passive sentence, a bland one, and clicheed to boot. Adding another adjective won't make them stronger.

The mountains towered above the plains. The mountains rose abruptly from the plains, their tops covered in clouds. The mountains dwarfed the low stone buildings of the inn.

All of these have the mountains doing something, establishing a threat.

Or you can have the mountains create an emotion in the character - is she overwhelmed by them? Frightened? Awed by their majesty? What does she see: an obstacle, a source of ore and gemstones, a boundary, an unobtainable goal?

I would disagree on the obscene swearword, however - because you also get mild, funny, inappropriate, and obscure ones, although 'an obscenity' might be stronger.

Murphy said...

Ah, adjectives? One of these days I'll have to share my adjective story with you guys. It involves a trip to the grocery store, my husband and a hunk of meat. I never laughed so hard in my life!!! Hey, who said grammar can't be fun, eh?

Wes said...

Murphy, you could spice up your post by moving the "and" after "my husband" and putting it after "grocery store".

em said...

Murph, spill the adjective story. Come on, pretty please with sugar on top?;)
Em

Babs said...

Sneaky ghosts, brilliant!

Wes, that was a very clever rearrangement.;)

Murphy, you have to tell the story. YOU never laughed so hard? It has to be good!

Murphy said...

LOL Wes! But can I say on behalf of women everywhere, MEN! (insert me shaking my head) Only a guy would bastardize a nice clean comment like that;). But, now that I read what I wrote, I see where you probably couldn't help yourself. Husband, hunk and meat are three words I should not have grouped together. My bad.

em said...

Murphy! What about the story behind the comment?

Wes said...

No, Murph. My bad. I'm a victim of millions of years of evolution...........

Murphy said...

Evolution, eh? (insert me thinking really hard here) Nope. Wes, I can honestly say I'm not gonna buy that one. I may be blonde but I get mine from a bottle. Maybe you could try swinging that lame excuse by Paris Hilton - I'm sure her hair color is all natural and as such, there may be a chance she'd believe you.:D

Wes said...

Not going to buy it????? I was hoping you let me off the hook so I'd have an excuse for being tasteless and not particularly bright. Guess I'm stuck with the alternative, that when I exercise free will, I'm tasteless and not particularly bright.

You realize that you've offended Paris Hilton's fans on this blog. I'm sure there must be another. Personally, I feel that being shallow and superficial is underrated.

Murphy said...

Hahaha!
You say: You realize that you've offended Paris Hilton's fans on this blog.

I say: All of her fans that follow THIS BLOG are free to email me with thier complaints. But, be WARNED...I'm making a list and when it's done I'll be posting it.

You say: Personally, I feel that being shallow and superficial is underrated.

Well, I got nothing to say to that - because so do I!:D

Murphy

Babs said...

Murph, no story? I was thinking I'd come home to find it here. I'm so disappointed.:(

Although, some of the other comments did make me smile.
Thanks!
Babs

Leona said...

Look what happens when I leave you guys for a few days. Can I just say, insert cyberspace stamp here, ***see RE RWA in DC blog for more info*** I'd like to know the Paris Hilton Fans that also read this blog.

And Wes, the word you may be looking for could be de-evolution? Women have evolved, men... Well, let's just say the jury's still out LOL

And MURPHY, can I second BABS in begging for the story? As a going away present? I'm moving to Texas (from Washington State) and I've heard it's a different country. Will I still be able to use the internet there? LOL

Pleeeeaassse Murphy see I didn't over modify *insert tongue in cheek* :D

Murphy said...

Leona: These next two are for you!...it didn't fit in one post.:D

Hmmm...where to begin? Oh yeah, the trip to the grocery store. You see, my husband and I were having company and since I was doing - well, EVERYTHING! I asked that he go and pick up the meat that I needed for dinner. I was very specific about what kind of meat and how many pieces, because you know? Well, he's a guy, right? So, an hour or so goes by, and I have cleaned the house, chilled the wine, made the salad, peeled and chopped the potatoes, set the table, washed up the dishes, taken the dog out, finished the laundry, worked out the meaning of life while I took a thirty second shower and managed to get ready by the time he returned home. I tell you all this, because he arrived in my kitchen with one bag in his hand, looking like he had accomplished the most important task of his life...

(continued in next post)

Murphy said...

Our guests are due to arrive at any minute and I wanted to get a marinade on the meat, so impatiently I ask, "Did you get the meat?" Here again, I tell you this because the husband has been known to come home with magic beans on occasion. Sheesh! Often enough that you’d think his name is Jack.:D
"Did I get the meat?" he repeats, which is never a good thing because it usually means that he thinks he's out smarted me somehow and...well, nuff said about that, eh?
"Yes, the meat. Come on, come on" (I had to repeat this because he was being playful at this point) "Our guests will be here any minute and you'll be stuck entertaining them if I have to stay in the kitchen and finish marinading it."
(I don't know about anyone else but I find veiled threats very effective).:D
That was enough to snap him to. He shoved his hand into the bag and plucked out a hunk of meat. Wait, let me just say that it was a HUGE hunk of meat.
"What the hell is that?" Magic beans - magic beans is doing a sing song in my mind.
"THE MEAT!" he announces like he needed to - and he did, because what I originally sent him to purchase was ribeye steaks ( as I had planned on BBQ).
Instead I was left staring at the package in his hand and couldn't even blink. I just stared. "Meat? What kind of meat? Where are the steaks?"
I tried grabbing for the package but he's like a foot taller than I am, so he did the old, holding it over his head thing. (that's his only power over me BTW, but I figure one day bone loss will fix that because I hide the vitamins on him -hehehe).
Needless to say, I don't engage him when he pulls this childish tact. So, I stepped back and demanded at this point, "Tell me you have the ribeyes somewhere?"
"Ribeyes? Nope," he says this like he's the MAN and unwisely continues in the same tone. "I bought this for dinner." At which point he brings it down to my eye level and I get my first good look at it. Reading the label I'm trying really hard not to panic. "Six and half pounds," he announces flipping it onto the counter between us. There it is, spinning at an odd angle and when it stops I look up him. I'm frozen in shock until he smiles brightly and says: 'Yep, Six and half pounds. And you see the price? It was only three dollars and eighty eight cents!"
My mind is stuck back on ‘Nope’ because I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to fix this...until the words: three dollars and eighty eight cents lands in my consciousness. I can feel my insides squishing together like a huge hand is fisted around my torso - making all the blood go to my head until it felt like it was going to fly off! “So, let me get this straight? I sent you for six ribeye steaks and you bring me back,” I pick up the lump of mystery meat and squint down at the label. “a bone-in, rib, cap-off, shoulder, side, butt-end, tender -STEAK?! I don’t even know what the hell that is?”
“Well throw some BBQ sauce on it. I’m sure it will be fine. Did you hear? It was only three dollars and change?”
I ignored his comment of course, like I usually do when he talks about saving a buck. We all pick our battles. But Ribeye steaks when you’re having company is no time to be entering the field, if you know what I mean. “You think I’m going to be cooking this–this–thing tonight?”
“Why not?” I could tell by his casual shrug he was starting to realize he had made a big mistake (now I’m wondering what idiot at the grocery store talked him into buying the cow’s what? Man, now that I look at all those adjectives - maybe that cow had been malformed - cap-off shoulder and butt-end in the same piece? (Insert shrug) maybe it was a midget cow where the shoulder and ass were close together. Any way, for some reason that made me even madder but I don’t like to yell or freak out ( believe it or not - I am civilized). So, I took a deep breath and leaned with my elbows on the counter - accepting the fact that pizza was going to be somewhat anticlimactic to all the other delicious accompaniments I was going to be serving, and I braced myself.

Murphy said...

“Okay, you see these words lined up in front of the word steak. Yeah, those,” I pointed to the first: ‘bone in’. “Consider that two hours of cooking time. This second?” I pointed to cap-off. ‘Two more.” I did this with each of them until I reached the word steak, then I stood up.
My husband god love him, was totally baffled when he stammered, “B-but th-the meat? What about dinner?”
I made one of those smiles - you guys know the one. The one that say you’re an idiot but I’m not saying it out loud, and quipped. “It means there Bucko, that if you wanted to eat your mystery meat tonight - you should have bought it yesterday.”
So, now you all know. The problem I have with inserting too many adjectives is just karma biting me in the ass for that one! I would have inserted a hahaha after that, but strangely there's nothing funny about that, is there? Crap!
Murphy;D

Jami G. said...

Murphy,

I bow to your power to not rip his head off... I, myself, would make no such claim about my attitude in a similar situation. :)

Jami G.

em said...

Murphy! H-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s!!! :)
I'm glad you posted it. Mystery meat? I'm still laughing!
Em

em said...

Murphy, you're too much! I just had to say that again.

Anonymous said...

...Who are you? I enjoyed your story. You could sell that.

Leona said...

aI can't believe how well you kept your cool! I like how you took care of it. I would have loved to see his face!

That is so funny! Every woman who's sent someone to the store with SPECIFIC instructions has probably had that happened. Well, not exactly that. I mean, how many men could honestly pull that off? did you ask him why he didn't get the rib eye and the 3 dollar mystery meat? lol

That is hilarious. Thank you !

Babs said...

Murphy,

I am still reeling from the story. But, like Leona I am wondering why he didn't buy both?:)

Anonymous said...

Mystery meat. lol

Wes said...

Murphy, Murphy, Murphy. Great story, BUT I detect a little bit of male-bashing. I feel like I need to defend my gender. I see creativity and thinking outside the box on your husband's part.

Wes said...

In the interest of gender-fairness I must tell about trying to teach my wife to cook before we were married. I thought Shake-n-Bake (sp?) chichen ought to be a good confidence-builder. So I set a box of Shake-n-Bake on the kitchen counter and went to another room so she wouldn't think I was scrutinizing her work. I hear this noise of "shake, shake, shake" for fifteen minutes and wonder what the hell is taking so long. Finally I walked back into the kitchen, and she asked "When does the chicken appear?" I opened the refrigerator door and pointed to the chicken and explained that she had to add it to the bag.

Jami G. said...

Wes,

I so do not believe you! :) But that's only because I know I'm terrible in the kitchen and can't cook worth a darn - and even I'm not that bad! LOL!

Jami G.

Wes said...

Tis true, and there's more. We met as students in Europe. While hitch-hiking in Italy I asked her to get a cabbage at a market (it was to be our survival food if we got stuck somewhere). She came back with califlower...........Fortunately these incidents didn't stop her from getting her masters degree and becoming an international expert in her field.

Murphy said...

Jami: If I had ripped his head off I'd lose my only source of amusement in this life. Sucks to be him, eh?:)

Em: I'm glad you thought it was funny. That night at the dinner table while we were eating gourmet pizzas with mashed potatoes, vegetable medley and caesar salad - you can be sure the only ones who thought his buying the hunk of mystery meat was funny, were our guests.

Anon: Who am I? I have no idea...pretty scary, eh? I'm glad you liked reading about a slice of my life, though.

Leona: I'm good at keeping my cool - that's what unnerves him and I just love that!:D

Babs: He's cheap and there is no getting around the fact. I'd send him with my son to the mall to buy a pair of sneakers. My son wanted a specific brand: NIKE. What did he buy him? NIKKAY'S the knock off brand that fools no one but the one that bought them in the first place!

Anon: I can't be the only woman who has faced the old mystery meat (and I'm talking about the store bought kind for those of you with your minds in the gutter reading this)

Wes: As for hubby thinking outside the box? Nope, try thinking from inside his wallet!

As for male bashing? Give ME a freaking break! I could have bashed him, but I didn't. Instead I ordered the pizza's with double the amount of the most expensive toppings I could find on the menu. It wound up costing him more than the steaks would have. Poor baby!:D

em said...

NIKKAY'S? ROTFL Murphy!

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I believe you. My six brothers all learned to cook (in a family of 10, everyone learns to cook), and surprise! They tended to attract women who didn't cook.

I, of course, attracted a man who knows so little about cooking, he thinks I'm a great cook!
Alicia