Be done with big, juicy hamburgers: A tip for writers

Dr. Simons, my advisor in college and my favorite teacher, one of the big influences on my adult life, used to always remind me of a simple rule for better writing. Here it is:

Stay away from “big, juicy hamburgers.”

How is that a writing tip? Here’s what he meant: show, don’t tell. Show me a big, juicy hamburger, don’t tell me the hamburger was big and juicy.

Big and juicy are abstract words that mean different things to different people. They are not effective in producing an image in the mind of the reader. They lack gumption.

Instead of saying, “he ate a big, juicy hamburger,” say, “he opened his mouth wide to bite into the burger, and when he did, a flavor gushed into his mouth and ketchup dripped onto his shirt. He needed a napkin immediately.” Create an image. Let the reader figure out that it’s a big, juicy burger.

Writing too overwhelmed with adjectives is tiring. Always aim for specific, definite, and concrete. But don’t take my words for it, consider Mark Twain’s words, one of the finest writers in the English language:

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.

If you want captivating writing, stop telling me about roses; show me a rose. Stop describing what they’re like; show me a petal. Don’t give me a big, juicy hamburger; let its taste burst into my mouth as I bite.

Mark Twain, again:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

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