Descriptors Done Right
Discover the art of effective writing by focusing on nouns and verbs, and learn why excessive descriptors can hinder your prose.
Nothing bogs down your writing like excessive descriptors. Please: Let nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. Too many adjectives—and especially adverbs—trigger your readers' skepticism, slow down the pace, and disrupt your fluency. There is a reason that Stephen King and other great writers urge us to kick these.
After all, as A.A. Patawaran points out: “A world without adjectives would still have the sun rising and setting, the flowers blooming, the trees bearing fruits, the birds singing, and the bees stinging.”
The truth that all great writers learn is that better nouns and verbs—ones that do the work of our lazy adjectives—make for good writing. Cherry-picking nouns and verbs makes it unnecessary to add layers of descriptive adjectives that lengthen sentences and comprehension time. (Your adjective and adverbs, we will see, have greater impact if they are rarely used.)
Compare the following generic descriptors on the left with the more targeted nouns and verbs on the right:
Targeted nouns and verbs:
Juvenile, teen, child, five-year-old
Very small house
Cabin, cottage, villa
The rambunctious crowd
This is a perfect example of descriptors bogging down garden-variety legal writing:
Excising those and focusing on strong nouns and verbs cuts clutter and hones the points (courtesy of Justice Kagan):
Or take this snippet from another federal brief:
Much more effective without the descriptors:
Same with this sample, also from federal filings:
That's not to say that you should never use descriptors. They can be a force for good. For one, descriptors occasionally convey important information that the nouns and verbs can't muster on their own. But on those rare occasions when a descriptor will help—choose carefully. Empty intensifiers, like “very,” “really” and “clearly,” rarely add anything worth adding. Good descriptors will convey something useful.
For example, here, by using the word “explicitly,” the court is pointing out that a prior case put something down in writing:
And sometimes a brilliant descriptor can pack a wallop, used sparingly and artfully:
Take some examples from appellate savant Paul Clement. In each, the descriptor is building an image or concept that no noun or verb can pull off as well. In other words: the descriptors are actually doing something and not just lazy, pushy language. They are also often pithy in that they are novel or underused descriptors, not the same old “significant” and “substantial” legal descriptors lawyers use all the time.
Sometimes descriptors can also help distinguish:
The takeaway: Use descriptors less. Let verbs and nouns do the talking. When descriptors will help, make sure they are unique and tailored to a powerful image rather than a lazy afterthought.
Write.law co-founder Joe Regalia combines his experience as both practitioner and professor to create exciting new ways to teach legal skills. Learn more about Joe