Descriptors Done Right

Discover the art of effective writing by focusing on nouns and verbs, and learn why excessive descriptors can hinder your prose.
  • Joe Regalia
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:

Generic Descriptors:

Targeted nouns and verbs:

Young person 
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: 
“The Government repeatedly and voraciously argues that under the statute there is very broad authority for EEOC to decide precisely how to engage in, and exactly when to give up on, conciliation.”
Excising those and focusing on strong nouns and verbs cuts clutter and hones the points (courtesy of Justice Kagan): 
“The Government highlights the broad leeway the statute gives the EEOC to decide how to engage in, and when to give up on, conciliation.”
Or take this snippet from another federal brief: 
“Plaintiffs really offer nothing new here: their conclusory and baseless allegations that “they alleged defendant’s knowledge” is the very epitome of a quite desperate ploy."
Much more effective without the descriptors: 
“Plaintiffs argue nothing more than that ‘they alleged defendant’s knowledge.’ This legal conclusion is not the ‘specific fact’ that Rule 12 requires.”
Same with this sample, also from federal filings: 
“This case is the absolute epitome of a big corporation attempting to insidiously and vexatiously hurt a smaller one.”
“This is a case of a corporate giant bullying a small business.”
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:
“[T]his Circuit, almost two months before the district court's ruling in this case, explicitly declined to apply this framework. Liu v. Amway Corp., 347 F.3d 1125, 1136 (9th Cir. 2003).“
And sometimes a brilliant descriptor can pack a wallop, used sparingly and artfully: 
“The wall the court erect[ed] between church and state has become even more warped and twisted than I expected.”
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.
“When the Government starts picking favored speakers, First Amendment values are in grave danger.”
“The Government also has studiously avoided taking a litigation position here that might bind either FDA or DOJ in the future. The Government never squarely states an official position that FDA’s regulations do not prohibit non-promotional speech ...”
Sometimes descriptors can also help distinguish:
“The testimony is damning; the video is very damning.”
“The overbreadth problem posed by the Government’s expansive conception of ‘promotional’ speech is particularly problematic because it infringes upon fully-protected speech.”
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. 
Joe Regalia
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

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