Add Spark to Your Writing With
These 3 Simple Tweaks

Sparkplug

Clarity is the most important quality of good writing. Writers should master it before anything else.

But, if that’s all your writing is–clear, concise, direct, and to-the-point–it can become stale and boring, causing your readers to lose interest.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to inject life into your writing. By making some tweaks to your prose, you can significantly enhance your style, while retaining the vital clarity that good writing demands.

The tweaks I’m speaking of are modifiers, and I first learned about them by reading Joseph Williams’ book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, in which the University of Chicago English professor shares tons of advice that will dramatically improve your writing style.

I read the book for a college prose writing course and the ideas on modifiers are the ones I’ve most taken to heart, the ones that may have most benefited my writing. Williams advocates three types of modifiers:

  • Resumptive Modifiers
  • Summative Modifiers
  • Free Modifiers

Let’s look at each one, with examples of how to use them.

Resumptive Modifiers

Williams says, “To create a resumptive modifier, repeat a key word close to the end of a clause and then resume the line of thought with a relative clause, elaborating on what went before.”

Essentially, this means repeating the key word for emphasis.

Original version:

He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team.

Resumptive modifier version:

He finally faced his biggest fear, a fear that had plagued him since he joined the team.

Original version:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi that bursts with flavor.

Resumptive modifier version:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi, sushi that bursts with flavor.

By using commas and repeating words, you can give some rhythm to your sentences, letting your readers take it all in more smoothly.

Summative Modifiers

Williams says, “With a summative modifier, you end a segment of a sentence with a comma, then sum up in a noun or noun phrase what you have just said, and then continue with a relative clause.”

Original version:

He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team.

Summative modifier version:

He finally faced his biggest fear, a debilitating obstacle that had plagued him since he joined the team.

Original version:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi that bursts with flavor.

Summative modifier version:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi, a house specialty that bursts with flavor.

The summative modifier is similar to the resumptive modifier, but it allows you to be more descriptive.

Free Modifiers

Williams explains the free modifier: “This modifier follows the verb but comments on its subject. It usually makes more specific what you assert in the preceding clause that you attach it to.”

Original version:

He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team. This gave him newfound confidence and enabled him to take top honors.

Free modifier version:

He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team, eventually developing newfound confidence and taking top honors.

Original version:

The restaurant, which serves excellent sushi, provides flavor you can’t get anywhere else and makes you want to come back for more.

Free modifier version:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi, providing flavor you can’t get anywhere else and making you want to come back for more.

Using Them All Together

Be wise about how you do this–doing it just enough to imbue life into your writing–but sometimes you can mix and match these and really ramp up your writing.

Original version:

He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team. This gave him newfound confidence and enabled him to take top honors.

Combined modifier version:

He finally faced his biggest fear (a debilitating obstacle that had plagued him since he joined the team), developing newfound confidence and taking top honors.

Original version:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi and provides flavor you can’t get anywhere else. It makes you want to come back for more.

Combined modifier version:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi, a house specialty bursting with flavor, a flavor so unique it makes you want to come back for more.

Again, be sparing when you start combining these types of modifiers, as they can sometimes create very long sentences, confusing your readers.

But, certainly, use each of these modifiers by themselves with regularity, as they can add life, rhythm, and flow to your writing, breaking up the monotony of all those simple, clear, and direct sentences we’re always advocating, sentences that can dull down your writing if you let them.

About the Author: Jesse Hines is a freelance writer and the editor of Robust Writing, a blog exploring how to write clearly and profitably.

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Comments

  1. This is very great advice. Being someone that has mainly written in an academic style it is difficult to get out of that particular way of writing.

    The use of repeated modifiers in particular never really occurred to me. The other modifiers (such as summative and free ones) I have already been using. Glad that you wrote a blog article on this subject.

  2. I can already see where I need to use some of those summative modifiers, a handy tool for reinforcement, in my copy. :-p

    Thanks!

  3. The article shares much information, information that when used improperly makes sentences confusing.

    When reading this article, I found the sentences became less focused (a whirlwind of words), rather than adding clarity.

    …But seriously, I enjoyed all the examples except for the “All Together” versions, and will use them in my articles. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for the excellent advice, advice that I will certainly look towards using them in my own articles in the future.

  5. The resumptive modifiers can become tiresome and too redundant if overused.

    I probably would use something like that once in an article, and not in every article.

    Of course, it depends on what you’re writing as well.

  6. Great article. I use a couple of these at times, but I never knew that they had names.
    Now that I know they are actual “Literary Terms” I can consciously put them in my toolbox.
    Thanks

  7. Ah, I love combining the modifiers. You’ll notice that the great writers nearly always use them, especially in fiction.

  8. I enjoyed the lesson on modifiers, although I’m not fond of the resumptive modifier. It just sounds cheesy to mean, no matter how you use it.

    These are definitely useful when you’re really trying to drive a point home.

  9. I’ve been looking for various ways to make my writing a little bit more interesting. I haven’t taken anything involving academically since a college technical communications course.

    The course was good, but it focused on technical writing, which is documentation of solutions, reports, and manuals. It doesn’t help me much in my effort to write quality content, content that makes the reader want to come back for more. (see what I did there, aren’t I awesome?)

    Thanks for the tips

  10. Great lesson you have here on modifiers. It’s useful to learn new techniques on writing, tips to “spice” up our articles!

  11. @ Shaun

    You’re right. Many of the great literary writers use these and other sentence-lengthening, descriptive-enhancing techniques. Especially in fiction.

    @Tech Juice

    You are awesome. I loved this:

    “It doesn’t help me much in my effort to write quality content, content that makes the reader want to come back for more.”

    That was cool, a smooth, seamless way of emphasizing your point.

    @Evelyn

    “It’s useful to learn new techniques on writing, tips to “spice” up our articles!”

    Nice use of a modifier there. It’s kind of fun to experiment with these.

  12. excellent article, found via twitter.com

  13. I second that D.C. I come from a technical background so all of my writings are very direction based or overly specific.

    This post seemed to have been written for me and it was written with a naturally consumable style. Thumbs Up x 2!

  14. Interesting to read the nuts and bolts. Here’s what I’d do with those two original versions just for the hell of it:

    Facing the biggest fear that plagued him since joining the team gave him newfound confidence and he brought home top honors.

    The restaurant serves flavorful sushi that excels. You’ll want to come back for more.

    Concise, no repetition and punch. Fun stuff!

  15. Jesse,

    I like your points…and very well made.

    I only slightly challenge the “combined use” of modifiers, modifiers that made the sentence sound “long winded” to me. :)

    Here is your comparison:

    Original version:

    He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team. This gave him newfound confidence and enabled him to take top honors.

    Combined modifier version:

    He finally faced his biggest fear (a debilitating obstacle that had plagued him since he joined the team), developing newfound confidence and taking top honors.

    When you read the “combined modifier” version…it just seems long and “thick” when you read it.

  16. Great advice. I’ve read too many blogs that play it safe and go too far with the “keep it simple” content advice that some give. Keeping it simple does not mean to keep it uninteresting. Thanks for this post Jesse.

    Rick

  17. I can’t let James have all the revision fun. Here’s my take, but just this one:

    He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team. Emboldened with his newfound confidence, he grabbed top honors while screaming with joy inside his head.

  18. @Joseph

    Yeah, I actually agree. The combined modifiers examples weren’t the greatest, but it was more about experimentation, experimenting with different ways of putting together two direct, yet somewhat bland sentences.

    It’s certainly possible to create some elegant sentences by combining the modifiers; it just takes some effort. However, the tendency for those types of sentences to become long and thick, as you mention, is always there–use them sparingly, but when you get it to work well, it can really work well. Use caution.

    @James and Roberta

    I like the perspective you’ve added with your rewrites. These examples are just that–examples meant to spur on engagement that can create better ones. I encourage everyone to chime in with their rewritten versions of some of my “modified versions.”

    Especially if you can rewrite some of the sentences while using at least one type of the modifiers mentioned–resumptive, summative, or free–it’d be interesting to see who can come up with the closest-to-perfection version by using a modifier.

    @Rick

    You’re welcome. Yes, keeping it simple is necessary, but keeping it interesting is too. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  19. @ Jesse – Ahhh, but perfection is in the eye of the beholder, is it not?

    @ Roberta – Damn, girl, can’t a guy get a break? ;)

  20. Neat stuff, I love when CB gets all wordgeeky.

  21. Jesse,

    I’m a big fan of the techniques you demonstrated, having once been deemed “The Queen of the Run-On Sentence,” a title I have consistently earned since 1986, a fine year unless you’re a fan of Billy Buckner.

    To wit:

    Original: He finally faced his biggest fear that had plagued him since he joined the team. This gave him newfound confidence and enabled him to take top honors.

    New:
    One fear had plagued him since he joined the team, causing innumerable moments of indecision, crippling his ability to be the hero that his town needed. Having conquered that fear, Billy’s confidence soared, rising to enable him to take top honors; honors which were dashed for good, when indecision and Mookie Wilson caught up with him at last.

    Original: The restaurant serves excellent sushi and provides flavor you can’t get anywhere else. It makes you want to come back for more.

    New:
    Freshest fish daily. F—ing fabulous flavor. ;)

    Wordy works wonders, though sometimes simple suffices.

    Oh, me.

    Thanks for the technical terminology; I haven’t thought about sentence structure seriously in years.

    I’m not thinking about it too seriously now….

    Regards,

    Kelly

  22. I have to agree with James, James is someone I agree with.

    Doh! Stupid dangling modifier.

  23. @ Orange – Hit and miss! That would be two sentences separated with a semi-colon :) But!

    I have to agree with the Comment King, King that rules with verve and splendor.

    Oooh I like that. Mmhm.

  24. wow!! I realised I use these a bit in my copy, however I didn’t realise the technique had a name!

  25. Order the sushi, the house specialty. My mouth waters just thinking about it, waters I tell you.

  26. Great practical advice, advice that, inevitably in a blog about copywriting, is implemented into every comment.

  27. These are cool. The next contest then should be, pick a modifier and fit it in exactly 140 characters. :)

  28. That’s worth taking a note of! I’ll remember to use the resumptive, summative and free modifiers, these 3 simple tweaks to spark my writing, making it more appealing to my potantial readers :)

  29. Great tips for writing. I didn’t know them till now. Thanks.

  30. He finally faced his biggest fear, replacing this vile plague with newfound confidence, confidence that earned him top honors in the team.

    Thanks for the tips!

  31. This post came at a very ideal time … I just left my typewriter with it’s rather bland prose in it to check my email. Now I can return to it and try some of this. Thanks!

  32. Great article!

    Haha, I love those last two paragraphs. Very nice touch.

  33. Great article, thanks!

  34. Robust write Jesse.

  35. Great tips! I’ll certainly be trying to incorporate more of these into my own posts to lend them a bit “punchier” feel.

  36. Thanks for sharing these tips. It will help me improve my blogposts which these days are very clear but rather boring.

  37. Nice article, putting this as a link in my toolbox, this is going to totally help me out when generating content, bravo!

    Thx.

  38. I was going to follow up on what this author has to say, but robustwriting.com is gone. 4004 Error, entire website is gone!

    Pity.

    I’ve killed a couple blogs of my own so I can’t complain … but I wish Jesse could have hung on just a while longer.

    BTW, this is my first post of the year. ;-)