Descriptive Words for the Unwise

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bad wordsEffective descriptive writing is hard work, requiring careful word choices to inspire the reader’s imagination and emotions. Misguided use of adverbs and adjectives can suck the life out of prose, and here is a partial list of my pet peeves.


  1. Empty Intensifiers: Adverbs such as “very” and “really” are lazy substitutes for more intense verb or adjective choices; for example, “adores” delivers more punch than “really likes,” and “massive” provides more dimension than “very big.”
  2.  Adjectives That Forget It’s All Relative: Adjectives such as big/little, important/minor, or exciting/dull fail to connect with readers because interpretation is subjective and relative. Good writing provides specifics. Thus, “baseball-sized dent” is clearer than “big dent,” and “front-page news story across the nation” has more meaning than “important news story.”
  3. Adverbs That Try to Put a Bright Wrap on Dull Verbs: Most of these adverbs end in -ly (the boy ran quickly), and they reflect uninspired verb choice. When writers select strong action verbs, there is no need for clunky modifiers (the boy raced).
  4. Adjectives That Judge Without Evidence: People decide whether something is beautiful or alluring (ugly or disgusting at the other end of the spectrum) based on input from their five senses, so descriptions that rely on general qualifiers, such as “lovely” or “awful,” without sensory detail leave readers fumbling for the author’s vision. For example, isn’t it easier to picture “a pond with a viscous green surface emitting sulfurous fumes” than an “ugly” pond?
  5. Adjectives Struggling to Meet the Right Noun: “Elongated yellow fruit” is not a better way to say “banana.”  So a “very tall urban building” can be effectively replaced with “skyscraper,” and the “main artery carrying blood from the heart” is succinctly and accurately termed the “aorta.”

For other words to avoid:


Katherine Sharma’s family roots are in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But after her early childhood in Texas, she has moved around the country and lived in seven other states, from Virginia to Hawaii. She currently resides in California with her husband and three children. She has also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia, and makes regular visits to family in India. After receiving her bachelor’s degree. in economics and her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Katherine worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 15 years. She then shifted into management and marketing roles for firms in industries ranging from outdoor recreation to insurance to direct marketing. Although Katherine still works as a marketing consultant, she is now focused on creative writing.

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