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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Triple Duty Verbs

I recently learned that an author named Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a 50,000 word novel, titled "Gadsby," which never used the letter "e." Not only that, his language flowed beautifully. I know this is kind of an odd way to begin this entry, but I wanted to stress this point: exact words have power. In Wright's case, his goal may have been, in part, to see if he could meet this challenge, but also--I'm guessing--a marketing gimmick--Who wouldn't be curious to see how he had accomplished this feat?--but for my purposes here, I want to emphasize the importance of word choice.


In recent years, I've had editors and an agent describe my writing as "tight," "subtle," "wordsmithing," and "saying a lot in a small amount of space." On first glance, you may say, "those descriptions are redundant," and my response would be, "Yes they are!" Which is exactly my point, because they all describe my detailed use of "word choice." Perhaps I learned this skill through my magazine writing experience. Or maybe it was my poetry training. But either way, I've learned to take great care (it's almost automatic with me now) in choosing words, especially verbs, that will do double or even triple duty.

My first step is to imagine exactly what is going on in the scene and write it using "active" rather than "passive" voice.

Second (either during the creation process or on a later draft), I delete/avoid "ly" words (adverbs) as much as possible and implement verbs that convey that "ly" meaning (double duty). For example, if my character "runs quickly" into a forest out of fear, I might consider "hurtled," "charged," or "tore." On the other hand, if she "runs quickly" out of joy, I might look at"lilted," "raced," or "loped."

Finally, I narrow my verb choices down to one or two "common" ones by deciding which verb actually "fits" the character (triple duty). For instance, Anne Shirley could readily "charge" into a forest out of fear, whereas Sandra Bullock's character in Miss Congeniality would probably "hurtle" or "trip" or even "crash" into the forest. Get the idea?

Now one final thought. I struggle with absolutes. I've always blamed that on the writer in me that believes nothing is absolute (except the gospel, God, etc.), and so I hesitate to guarantee the success of anything. But in this case, I have no hesitation. If you change your verbs from passive to active voice, eliminate most, if not all, of your adverbs, and choose verbs which depict both the action and the character, your prose WILL be stronger. I promise.

3 comments:

Josi said...

Great reminder--I'll have to check out that book, how could you write without an e? It's got to be fascinating.

'Shel said...

Thanks! now to look at my works and attack adverbs! Shall we carry signs at the next Storymaker's conference stating "Death to adverbs!"? Too brazen eh? well, by then you could be a famous author and TEACH a class (I would sign up immediately)!!!

Jen said...

I had a government professor in college who required a paper a week. He would mark us down for unnecessary words--his recommendation was to write the paper, then go through and cut out 50% of the words without losing meaning, then do it again.