An excellent question from the mailbag:
I have a writing question for you. I find myself often expressing things using “very” and “really”, that a thought is “very intriguing” or I found a story “really fascinating”. I’d like to think I have a more varied vocabulary, and yet instead of searching for a word to express the emphasis I’m adding with the “very” or “really” I’m simply using those. I guess my question then is, what does one do to decrease reliance on such adverbs?
I’ll answer this with a cooking analogy.
Salt is an indispensable ingredient. Used in moderation, it makes sweet things sweeter, cuts bitterness and turns up the volume on flavor.
Intensifiers (e.g. very, really, extremely) are like table salt.
Ideally, salting the food is the cook’s task. (That’s you, writer.) Good ingredients and well-chosen seasoning—meaty nouns and verbs, delicately chosen adjectives, a pinch of perfectly placed punctuation—are your first priority. A balanced dish is seasoned judiciously: not to cover up faults in the ingredients or preparation, but to bring out the flavors that are already there.
If you have to add table salt after the fact, that implies a fault in the preparation—there’s not enough flavor to carry the dish.
On the other hand, a cook who over-salts a perfectly good dish insults the subtlety of the diner’s palate. Enough salt will mask mediocre food; too much will render it inedible.
If you’re trying to convey fascination, interesting is too mild. Very interesting is bland masked by table salt. Riveting is well-seasoned. Very riveting is over-salted.
If you’re bored of the words you always use, head for the cookbook. The thesaurus, used correctly, can be a gateway to better writing. You can also do a lot with the preparation: punctuation, syntax and context. Timing is everything.
Here’s the bottom line. Chances are that if you’re using a lot of intensifiers, you’re either using lackluster adjectives in the first place, or you’re over-salting. Take a leap of faith. Delete all of your intensifiers and see what happens. I bet you won’t miss them. And if you do, try to improve the quality of your ingredients before you add them again.
This is wonderful. I always love the Mailbag Edition.