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Disrupt Your Use of Clichéd Adjectives

Have you ever come to the end of writing that had a lot of important-sounding words but seemed to give no useful information--words like “innovative,” “evidence-based,” “multi-disciplinary,” “translational,” “breakthrough,” and “groundbreaking." So often, I find that the number of impressive-sounding adjectives is inversely related to the substance of the writing.

And I think there is actually a reason such words lead to writing that is substantively thin: they act as substitutes for good description. People need description of how something works, looks, or what it is analogous to in order to understand or picture it, especially when dealing with research and concepts in complex fields like health and technology.

Let's look at an example of how puffy adjectives don't help from this actual company description I found online:

We are passionate about creating powerful, disruptive technologies that transform how companies do business.

We will remember nothing about this company with this description. Here's an alternate way to describe the company, through a description of one of its signature products, which I made this up:

We invent food technologies that make life easier for consumers and the restaurant industry. Our inaugural product, the Egg Denuder represents this ethos, as the first automated machine to remove the shell from a hardboiled egg in one clean peel. The Egg Denuder transformed the restaurant industry by cutting egg cooking time in half.

The paragraph above shows us how the company is innovative ("the first automated machine to remove the shell from a hardboiled egg in one clean peel")  and disruptive (“The Egg Denuder transformed the restaurant industry by cutting egg cooking time in half.”) rather than telling us.

Avoid These Empty Adjectives, and Try This Instead

Below are some empty adjectives to avoid and techniques to try instead:

  • Breakthrough: tell us why this discovery is an instant and important development
  • Disruptive: tell us how this discovery is shaking things up
  • Evidence-based: tell us about the evidence that supports this discovery
  • Innovative: tell us how this discovery introduces new/creative/ original ideas, thinking, or methods, etc.
  • Interdisciplinary: tell us how disciplines are working together
  • Multidisciplinary: tell us what disciplines are involved
  • State-of-the-art: tell us how this discovery incorporates the newest ideas and most up-to-date features
  • Translational: tell us how research is being turned into practice

Here’s an exercise for the next time you write. Circle every adjective. Then see if you can rewrite the sentences with adjectives you circled to be more visually descriptive.  You might find in that some of your adjective choices were a bit of a stretch (Few scientific studies are "breakthrough"). That’s fine. No one will miss a deleted use of breakthrough or innovative. Most people are so overexposed to marketing language that these words wash over us. What they will remember is a colorful  and informative description.

WritingElaine Meyer