Writing Tip: Nouns and Verbs Are Your Friends

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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.

OR

The ex-con bolted up, rubbed his eyes and then the stubble on his chin, and crept out of bed. Those footsteps didn’t belong in his apartment.

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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 don’t 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 as you may have figured out, I like to keep it short.

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It’s not only about eliminating adjectives and adverbs so that your writing contains few words that aren’t nouns and verbs. After all, if we did that to the first example, we’d be left with:

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

Not very exciting, is it? That’s why it’s 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, I’m inventing a sentence that has no manuscript surrounding it — no context. If we’ve already met the character, use his name or a more descriptive noun such as mine. If you’re 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.”

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Why is one noun stronger than three adjectives (and one verb stronger than three adverbs)? Sure, we can picture a guy who’s blond, well-groomed, and middle-aged, and we might guess from that description that he’s a businessman. We can picture a “wearily handsome, nervous, stubble-chinned man” and perhaps guess that he’s an ex-con. But using the noun rather than a string of adjectives accomplishes two important things: First, it adds action to the character’s description. “Ex-con” not only calls forth a set of physical attributes, but also, by definition, tells you something about the guy’s life outside of this moment: he’s 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.

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Then again, maybe the guy isn’t trying to go straight. Maybe he wants to return to a life of crime. Which brings me to the second advantage: involving the reader’s mind in the storytelling. If you string together a list of adjectives, you’re 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 novel’s fictional world they will become.

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Or in your nonfiction book’s world — nonfiction writers must leave less to the reader’s imagination, but editing using this principle will make nonfiction stronger as well. As with any other tips, customize it to your writing. It’s also, as I mentioned, about brevity. I don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 lot — chances are they’re surrounded by adjectives. If not, the potential book sitting in front of you may be dull indeed. Don’t 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 don’t have a thesaurus, for god’s sake, get one. The thesaurus in Microsoft Word, or anywhere online, won’t hold a candle to the old-fashioned bound kind.

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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.”

Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 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 www.BeYourOwnEditor.com in order to provide writers with free advice on both writing and the publishing business.

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