Writing advice blog: Editorialising and qualifiers

Susie Helme

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

When I worked as a journalist, we were taught never to Editorialise (express personal opinions or feelings). Our readers want to know Who, What, When, Where and How. They don’t care about what I think or feel about it. If I was lucky and they liked the piece, they’d look at my byline at the top and remember my name. But I wasn’t going to accomplish that by making the story all about me, me, me.

Certain words were banned outright: ‘much’, ‘many’, ‘a lot’, ‘very’. Now that I’m writing creatively rather than journalistically, I still avoid those words, and when I edit other people’s work, I will delete them.

Authorial intrusion
For one thing, using these words is editorialising. It’s a form of Authorial Intrusion. If you say:

There were many saplings growing in the garden.

You’re telling the reader what you, the author, think. You’re implying ‘I wasn’t expecting so many’ or ‘There are fewer growing in my garden.’ When here, the garden you’re talking about belongs to the protagonist. What matters is what she thinks, not you. Much better would be this:

There were saplings growing in the garden. Billie could scarcely see her trowel for the branches in her face.

Showing not Telling
By describing the scene using sensory clues (using the 5 senses), the reader has a more powerful picture of how many saplings there were. We see the saplings through Billie’s eyes. We are drawn into the scene emotionally and can feel all those branches in her face.

Or: There were 56 saplings growing in the garden—56, Billie counted them. ‘Clearing this is going to take days,’ Billie thought.

Better than editorialising and better than Telling the reader something is Showing by using dialogue, action or sensory clues.

Diluting the impact
Another reason to avoid these words is that they are ‘weak’. They dilute your meaning and lessen the impact of your words.

Look at the difference between:

I was really upset.

And: I was upset.

The latter example hits you in the face. You can almost see the spittle coming out of my mouth as I say the final ‘t’.

Even better would be: I was so upset, I dropped all the eggs I’d collected, and they broke in a sticky mess at my feet.

This example Shows how upset I was by my actions, dropping the eggs, and also uses Metaphor. The sticky mess is a metaphor for my upset feelings.

Or: Billie grabbed my elbow. ‘My god, Susie, what’s the matter?’

This example doesn’t even use the word ‘upset’ but Shows it through Billie’s reaction. It gives my feelings more import by setting the scene in action, upping the drama. As well as showing how upset I was, it can also Show you something about my relationship with Billie.

Muddying the meaning
When you use any kind of qualifier, a word added to modify the meaning of another word, you’re muddying the meaning of that word. Make sure the muddying is improving the message that you want to convey.

The new boy is rather cute.

Here, you’re not nailing your colours to the mast. You’re just making an off-handed observation, in passing.

The new boy is cute.

Whereas, here, you can almost hear an exclamation point at the end of the observation. I am attracted to this new boy.

If the ‘rather’ in the former example is intentional, you could mean, ‘I do think he’s cute, but I’m not sure asking him out would be a good idea.’

Qualifiers either express limitation (‘somewhat’) or enhancement (‘very’). A qualifier implies an element of doubt. Make sure that doubt is something you want to add to the scene, rather than a waffle that diminishes the impact of your words. I wouldn’t say never. What I’m trying to say is that if you use qualifiers, make sure the qualification is something you’re intending to say. Make sure the element of doubt is something you wanted in there. If all you’re trying to do is hedge your bets and not commit yourself to a strong statement, best to avoid them.

Choose powerful words
You can improve your writing by taking those qualifiers and the words they qualify and choosing a more powerful word, more exactly matched to what you are trying to convey.

I was really upset. (weak)
I was shattered. (better)

The new boy is rather cute. (weak)
The new boy is gorgeous. (better)

I was very surprised. (weak)
I was flabbergasted. (better)

List of weak qualifiers to avoid in your writing:
a lot
lots of
sort of
seems to
seems that
kind of

Just delete, and see how much more powerful your sentence sounds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: