POWER OF WORD CHOICE
VERBS (be lively)
Strong writers use strong verbs. Often great verbs don’t appear until later drafts. As you revise, demand more from your verbs.
Search your manuscript for all forms of the verb “to be” such as am, is, are, was, and were. Some cannot be improved on, such as: I am legend, it was all a dream, he’s a hero, I am your mother, you are my sunshine, I am a Mormon, my wife is pregnant, it was the best of times, etc. But do change all of the wimpy, lazy ones into colorful action verbs, and watch your writing come to life:
The sun is red.
The sun burns red.
The river was swift and dangerous.
The river raged through the canyon
Minnesota is the winner.
The cat was in the garden.
The cat dozed in the garden, or
hunted butterflies, or prowled
through the cabbage patch.
Afternoon shadows were on the lawn.
Afternoon shadows darkened the lawn, or drifted across the lawn.
If the subject or object of your sentence is a noun ending in “-tion”, maybe a strong verb is buried inside it under your very nose.
The destruction of levees by floodwaters happened overnight.
Floodwaters destroyed the levees overnight.
The defense lawyer conducted an examination of the witness.
The defense lawyer questioned, badgered, or grilled the witness.
An explanation was never given.
The boss never justified my pay cut. The coach never laid out the rules.
If you need extra words or prepositional phrases to explain the action, get a stronger verb. The fewer the words, the stronger the action.
The victim experienced a loss of blood.
The victim lost blood. (better) The victim bled. (best)
He moved with a swagger.
Don’t just name the action; put a subject into the picture:
The burning of the flag was the work of protestors.
Protestors burned the flag.
Likewise, sounds, smells or sights, and other description should be perceived by the character in the story or be in terms of his reaction to his world. POV description moves the story action along, which is what we want. It’s the difference between:
The spring air smelled of roses.
Jane breathed in the scent of roses on the spring air.
NOUNS (be concrete)
Use precise terms. General nouns like road, tree, house, candy, car, dog, rocks or bushes are weak. These can be brought to vivid life by selecting more concrete or specific nouns. What kind of house? What kind of tree? What kind of candy?
“The little house was surrounded by trees” is vague compared to a cabin hidden by pines, farmhouse flanked by a stand of apple trees, winery nestled among twisted olives or Italian cypress, or a Creole cottage shaded by moss-draped live oak. When you use precise terms, the reader instantly visualizes from his own experience what that little house in the trees looks like.
Likewise, saying that “the dog ran off into the bushes” doesn’t offer a very clear picture compared to the collie scampered through the sagebrush, or the pit bull dodged behind the lilacs, or a bloodhound trotted through the creek-side willows.
A small car (Mini-cooper or VW bug), piece of candy (a licorice stick or bite of Hershey bar), rocky ridges (volcanic blackrock, or sandstone cliffs), desert vegetation (cactus, sage, oasis date palms), a body of water (stream, lake, ocean, fiord).
ADJECTIVES / ADVERBS
Adjectives are used to modify nouns. Adverbs are used to modify verbs and adjectives. Use modifiers sparingly or replace them with livelier verbs or more precise nouns.
Get rid of vague adverbs like “very”. Also search for adverbs ending in “-ly”. Do you really need them? Sometimes they are useful, like in “conveniently late”, “accidentally put my foot in it”, or “overly strict parents”, but watch for the following types of weak and useless modifiers:
Completely destroyed (can something be slightly destroyed?)
Utterly devastated (devastated already means the worst it could be)
Totally submerged (submerged means under water)
Slightly drunk (high, tipsy)
He moved quickly (did he jump, jerk, lurch, dash, run?)
She left slowly (she plodded, meandered, dallied, strolled)
Very inept (clumsy, ham-fisted, useless, feckless)
Virtually a genius (brilliant, smart, gifted, devious)
(As a side note, a common grammar mistake is to put a dash between an -ly adverb and the adjective it modifies, which is incorrect because the -ly already does the work of a dash. For example, totally-black cat is wrong and should be written as totally black cat. A dash is used only between an adjective modifying another adjective, like dark-red apple, or red-hot mama.)
Adjectives themselves can be made more precise, bringing them to vivid life in the reader’s mind, like the color names in a crayon box (Indian red, Naples yellow):
Is the water a deep, rich blue?
or translucent turquoise
Wrapped with a bright-red ribbon
crimson, scarlet, or burgundy,
shiny or velvet
She wore her pretty green sweater.
The reader can see celery green or jade green or hunter, but not pretty.
ACTIVE / PASSIVE VOICE
In most cases, strive to write in active voice where the Subject acts upon the Object in the sentence. Passive voice is where the subject is getting acted upon. Feel the difference between:
Everybody loved John. (active)
He was loved by everybody. (passive)
The movie inspired him.
He was inspired by the movie.
She disgusted him.
He felt disgusted by her.
The monster truck crushed his Pinto up against the barrier like an accordion.
His little car was pinned against the wall.
CONCEPTS (don’t just name them, portray them)
If you can’t actually feel or grasp in the gut an elusive or general concept you are trying to convey in your writing, enlist the five senses (see, hear, taste, smell, touch) to bring it down to earth, or use emotion to convince the reader, or punch it up by describing a specific action that portrays or embodies the concept:
Life, work and grief (are concepts we understand intellectually)
Blood, sweat and tears (but we can actually see tears, we can smell sweat, and blood is vital to our very life.)
Don’t fire until they get very close.
Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.
The press has a lot of power.
I fear three newspapers over a thousand bayonets.
indulged in an act of generosity.
donated a $100 bill.
Use parallelism and balance for stronger effect as well. Put words on one side that exactly balance words on the other side. Which sounds better?
Of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Of, by and for the people.
Give me liberty, or give me death.
Give me liberty or death.
I came, I saw, I conquered.
I came, saw and conquered.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
It was the best and worst of times.
In addition to being lively, concrete, personal, poetic, exact and orderly, strive to be brief and be simple. The fewer your words, the greater their impact. Which of the following sentences best gets the point across?
There is a common misconception when it comes to writing that is
professional in nature that a person must write in a verbose manner
to come across as intelligent.
People often make a mistake in thinking that writing long-winded sentences with big words makes them appear smarter.
You don’t need to write a lot or use big words to sound smart.
Don’t confuse brevity with triviality. Beautiful poetry usually consists of single syllable words.