Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Specificity of Words--Nouns and Verbs

Week of July 24—Revision Strategies that Work!
Tuesday, July 26—Specificity of Words—Nouns and Verbs

If verbs are the engines of sentences, then nouns are the wheels on which that engine rides.  Nouns need to be sturdy, solid, and specific.
—Georgia Heard, Revision Toolbox

Call me a writing nerd if you must, but I love to revise. And to further make you roll your eyes, I’ll tell you that I most love to work with nouns and verbs—to change them, play with them, massage them, until they are perfect (at least in my mind). I’m happy to say my affinity for verbs and nouns puts me in good company. Consider this quote from William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White:

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

And this from Georgia Heard’s The Revision Toolbox:

The more specific the verb, the more energy and specificity the sentence will have.  Using a particular verb can go a long way in creating a scene or image that we want to convey. 
An Exercise
We’ve discussed nouns and verbs and their power on Picture This! before. But let’s do a quick exercise to show it, instead of just telling it! Let’s work with this sentence:

The dog ate the food.

Let's deal first with the verb ate. As you make the verb more specific with the choices below, see how the sentence changes.

The dog ate the food.                      VERB CHOICES:
wolfed down
dined on
polished off

The more specific the verb, the more accurately we know what the dog is doing. Now let’s work with the noun food.

The dog ate the food.                       NOUN CHOICES:
Filet Mignon
pig slop
bag of treats
just-cooked burgers
cherry pie

Once again, we see that the specificity of a word choice, in this case a noun, can change the entire meaning of a sentence. So, of course, when you make both the verbs and nouns specific, a sentence can come to life. Try various combinations below to see what different story ideas you create from this one sentence.

The dog ate the food.          VERB CHOICES:   NOUN CHOICES:
sniffed                        scraps
devoured                   Filet Mignon
wolfed down             pig slop
nibbled                       bag of treats
inhaled                       just-cooked burgers
dined on                     groceries
polished off               cherry pie

Now, of course, not every noun and verb in a sentence or a story needs to be made specific. After all, we didn’t change dog in our example. If every noun and verb were specific, reading would be tedious and we’d probably lose track of the story line in the midst of the specificity (the trees might block the forest, in other words). But carefully and strategically choosing which nouns and verbs to make specific is essential to effective revision.

A Bit of My Editing Process
When I have finished something approaching a final draft, I make verb and noun lists. I might start with verbs and as I read the manuscript I list every verb I encounter in order. I then can instantly see where I have overused a verb or used the same verb in two locations that are too close together. I can see if my dialogue tags (yes, they are verbs, too) are effective, colorful, have variety, or have too much variety. I can do the same thing with my nouns. Then I make changes accordingly and reread the piece.

When my editor asked me to cowboy-up a manuscript, all I did was go back and make more verbs specific. In this case, I made them more colloquial, more cowboy-ish, more like an old-timey western movie. Every story requires a unique set of specific nouns and verbs to make it come to life.

An additional step I take is to go back and circle every pronoun in my story. Then as I read the piece again, I see if those pronouns actually make sense. Would someone not familiar with the story know who or what each he, it, them, there, that was referring to? If not, I need to insert some specific nouns in to help with the situation.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Take a piece of your writing and find two different colored pens, pencils, or highlighters. Use one color to highlight all the verbs. Use the other color to highlight all the nouns. Then get specific with it!

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