Colossal! Epic! Glorious!
One of my readers cringes at the casual use of epic. “In my opinion, if it isn't the universe, the ocean, or a heroic character—it's not epic."
Journalism and advertising alike have an inherent weakness for exaggeration. To sell your product, you exaggerate its merits; to sell your story to the reader, you reach for exaggerated language. So every sword-and-sandal drama becomes an epic in the advertisements, and every squabble between suburban property owners and developers becomes an epic battle.
Crisis, narrowly a term in medicine or drama for the decisive point, has come in political discourse to mean merely a big problem. Tragedy, an account of the fall of a great person (not necessarily a good one) because of a flaw in his or her character, has been domesticated to refer to any terribly sad event.
Journalists in particular are given to violating the “show, don’t tell” rule with adjectival inflation. Writers will call something dramatic, even though it is devoid of any visible drama, in a vain effort to make it look more important. They will call some award or position no one has ever heard of prestigious, and then they will tell you that the person holding it is prominent. (Hint: When someone wins a Nobel Prize, it’s not necessary to tell the reader that it’s prestigious, right?) They will casually label something the first, the only, the biggest, the oldest, when five minutes’ research will establish that the thing is far from distinctive.*
The one-sentence advisers you encounter in books and on Twitter—“Omit needless words!” “When you meet an adverb, kill it!”—will not be of much help to you. You will of course find it necessary to lance and drain the copy, but indiscriminate bloodletting is not good for the patient.
You can delete every dramatic and prestigious—I’ve been doing so for years—but you will better serve the reader if you take additional steps by asking questions, as editors do. What makes the situation dramatic? From what does the prestige emanate? Explanation is what readers look for, with specifics.
It does not end, that lonely epic battle of the solitary warrior, the copy editor, armed only with pencil or “delete” key, his back to the cubicle, as colossal looming forces of puffery, leviathans of cant, brigades of Brobdingnagian mendacity swarm and threaten to overpower him. Hard-pressed as the Spartans at Thermopylae, he dare not surrender, but must struggle to the end.
*Not, unfortunately, just the writers. Sometimes their editors will connive at exaggeration they try to “sell” the story for bigger play. This is one more reason to engage copy editors, who are not lobbyists for the texts they edit.