Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nouns and Verbs

Here’s an exercise I borrowed a long time ago from Natalie Goldberg, that I’ve found keeps my writing sharp. Dull writing uses lazy nouns and verbs, those general catch-alls that tell and do not show. But sharp writing uses action verbs and specific nouns, and puts them together in unique or surprising ways.

A good way to practice this is to make two lists. One list contains action verbs – not run, which is a general verb, but skip, or scamper, or dart, or lope – all specific kinds of running. A trick to picking good action verbs is to choose a profession – any profession – and ask yourself what this kind of person does. For instance – what does a boxer do? Well, a boxer thrusts, jabs, shuffles, weaves, bobs, and punches. Those are all action verbs. Or what does a psychiatrist do? A psychiatrist probes, nods, smiles, questions, listens, suggests. All action verbs. Or a dancer, or a chef, or a secretary -- you name it, and then tell what it does.

The other list contains specific nouns. They don’t have to be fancy nouns, in fact you can look around your living room or kitchen or office, and start naming things – but be sure they are specific nouns, not general ones. For instance, if you spot a tree outside your window, the noun you write down on your list is not “tree” – instead write down maple, or oak, or cedar. If you see your car in the driveway, the noun is not “car” – it’s jaguar, or SUV, or pick-up truck, or VW Beetle. Of course, you might also see your kitchen faucet, and the word “faucet” is specific enough for anyone.

Your lists can contain as many words as you like, but I usually aim for twenty. Don’t put your lists in any kind of order – in fact, it can be fun to put each word on its own little slip of paper and put it in a “verb pile” or “noun pile.” Then randomly pick out one verb and one noun and make a sentence. The sentence doesn’t have to make sense, but the noun must carry the action. For instance, if your noun is “rake” and your verb is “thrust”, the sentence should not be, “He thrust the rake into the pile of leaves.” Instead show the rake thrusting – “The rake thrust its prongs into the intruder.” Of course rakes do not thrust on their own, but your aim in this exercise is not necessarily to make sense, but to use common words in a new and different way.

Have fun.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit http://www.primary-sources.com/.
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  1. A good exercise and I like that you pointed out to make the actions fit the person. Sometimes I read a book or a manuscript where the writer has just put in as many action words as possible and they don't fit the character.

  2. Kim: Fun post! It reminds me of a reference I sometimes use: Random House's WORD MENU. For those not familiar with it, the book classifies words in categories and subcategories and gives associated words--most helpful if you are writing outside your area or having one of those days where you can't reach your words. An example from the Library Journal review:

    "Under Eating, for instance, a major subdivision of Domestic Life, the user finds several headings, including Foods, Cooking and Cuisine, and Eating Verbs; under the last heading, such terms as bolt, chew, chow down, devour, engorge, inhale, masticate, pig out, and quaff are briefly defined."

  3. Excellent advice to keep our writing fresh. Keeping usage true to the character helps keep the writing from sounding like you're using a thesaurus to find words.

    I've got the Descriptionary and the Flip Dictionary, but haven't seen the Word Menu yet -- will have to give that a peek.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Thanks for sharing this tip. Awesome as usual.

  5. Love the tips! My writing goal is to find action words that pare down the need for filler words. It takes a experimenting to get the right feel.

  6. You have a fabulous blog! I’m an author and illustrator and I made some awards to give to fellow bloggers whose sites I enjoy. It’s not a pass on award. This is just for you to keep. I want to award you the Brilliant Writer Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

    Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.

  7. I generally cringe at the thought of exercise, but this one should help get my flabby writing in shape.

  8. I love this exercise too and have used it in some of my writing classes. It's always fun to come up with new and exciting word pairings.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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