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Writing Tip: Why Nouns and Verbs Are Your Friends

"The wearily handsome, nervous, stubble-chinned man slowly and carefully got out of bed when he heard the soft, mysterious sound of footsteps in his apartment."


"The ex-con bolted up, rubbed his eyes and then the stubble on his chin, and crept out of bed. Those footsteps didnt belong in his apartment."

Look at the above sentences, and see if you can figure out why the second example is better written than the first. If you still dont know, look above that. At the risk of stating the obvious: nouns and verbs are the backbone of any sentence, and thus of all writing. I could have made my title really long and added and Adjectives and Adverbs Are Your Enemies, but I like to keep it short.

Its not only about eliminating adjectives and adverbs so that your writing contains few words that arent nouns and verbs. After all, if we did that to the first example, wed be left with:

"The man got out of bed when he heard the sound of footsteps in his apartment."

Not very exciting, is it? Thats why its important to focus your writing not only on nouns and verbs, but on interesting nouns and verbs. I began my second example with The ex-con, but of course, Im inventing a sentence that has no manuscript surrounding it--no context. If weve already met the character, use his name or a more descriptive noun such as mine. If youre introducing a new character, use the best noun possible. The businessman would evoke a completely different image in your readers minds, and it would be a stronger image than The blond, well-groomed, middle-aged man.

Why is one noun stronger than three adjectives (and one verb stronger than three adverbs)? Sure, we can picture a guy whos blond, well-groomed, and middle-aged, and we might guess from that description that hes a businessman. We can picture a wearily handsome, nervous, stubble-chinned man and perhaps guess that hes an ex-con. But using the noun rather than a string of adjectives accomplishes two important things: First, it adds action to the characters description. Ex-con not only calls forth a set of physical attributes, but also, by definition, tells you something about the guys life outside of this moment: hes trying to recover from his time in the slammer and go straight. A businessman probably looks a certain way, and presumably spends his days doing business.

Then again, maybe the guy isnt trying to go straight. Maybe he wants to return to a life of crime. Which brings me to the second advantage: involving the readers mind in the storytelling. If you string together a list of adjectives, youre feeding a character to your readers without allowing them to draw their own pictures. Part of the fun--and the fascination--of fiction is the fact that everyone who turns the final page of a book has read a different one. And the more you allow people to be cocreators of your characters, your settings, etc., the more enveloped in your novels fictional world they will become.

Or in your nonfiction books worldnonfiction writers must leave less to the readers imagination, but editing using this principle will make nonfiction stronger as well. As with any other tips, customize it to your writing. Its also, as I mentioned, about brevity. I dont need to explain why crept out of bed beats slowly and carefully got out of bed.

Of course, adjectives and adverbs have their places. Otherwise languages wouldnt contain so many. You might even find a few in this article (only a few). Again, customize this editing technique to your writing. Read a few pages and see if you find yourself using dull nouns such as man or thing a lotchances are theyre surrounded by adjectives. If not, the potential book sitting in front of you may be dull indeed. Dont go crazy with your thesaurus looking for obscure nouns to replace man, but do use this technique as a way to vary word choice. And, if you dont have a thesaurus, for gods sake, get one. The thesaurus in Microsoft Word, or anywhere online, wont hold a candle to the old-fashioned bound kind.

Replace adjectives with more interesting, descriptive nouns, and watch your writing become streamlined, subtly evocative, laced with intrigue, varied in word choice Oops, those are all adjective phrases. Just think of this noun: bestseller.

About the Author: Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York's most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. She founded in order to provide writers with free advice on both writing and the publishing business.

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