Kill (most of) your adjectives

Linda Barclay Isles
Wednesday 10 January 2024

Mark Twain said: ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it.’

Those are words to live by for journalists and communications people everywhere. At best, an adjective can clutter up a news story. At worst, it can make you sound like a snake oil salesperson.

Unique discoveries and revolutionary findings are rarely that.

News is meant to be objective – it’s not for the press office to decide whether an award its organisation has received is prestigious, or if its research is world-class.

And, if your press release does get opened by a media outlet, you can be sure those words will be the first to get culled by the sub-editor.

That said, there won’t be anyone working in a HE communications team who hasn’t used one or both of those words – and that includes this team. Sometimes, there’s just nothing else for it but to give an ordinary story a bit of spin.

If the story is strong, there is no need for the writer to guide the reader, they can make their own judgments based on the evidence you give them.

That’s why it’s so important to offer examples of impact – or case studies – if available. Or, in the case of an award announcement, to go into detail of what it means and the value it will add to the individual or organisation.

A good tip is to ask yourself ‘so what?’ after each sentence. Keep doing that until you have reached the ultimate impact of what you’re trying to communicate – what does it mean for your audience?

Mark Twain was not a fan of adverbs either, calling them the tools of the lazy writer. If a verb needs strengthening with an adverb, it’s not the right verb to use.

Here’s 10 adjectives or modifiers the Comms Team would like to consign to Room 101:

  • State-of-the-art
  • Unprecedented
  • Unique
  • Revolutionary
  • First-class
  • Prestigious
  • World-class
  • Cutting-edge
  • Ground-breaking
  • Outstanding

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