“Pup up. Brown down. Pup is up. Where is Brown? There is Brown. Mr. Brown is out of town.” This is a line from Hop on Pop, which is my daughter’s favorite Dr. Seuss book at the moment. Though otherwise seemingly random, the book teaches a lot about how the simplest words in the English language –nouns and verbs—can be used to tell a powerful story.
Nouns & Verbs – Why They Matter the Most
Let’s review the basics. A noun is a person, place, or thing. It’s the tangible object in your sentence. The verb (aka predicate) is the action that noun takes.
Well, duh, you say because…well, duh. These are the first parts of speech children learn, and there is a reason for that. Without nouns and verbs sentences, images, stories, and literature would fail to exist. While arguably you could create a story with descriptors (blue, fast, cold and sad, upside down), the resultant product would be so abstract that people would lose interest. Nouns and verbs are requisite for structure, plot, and character to exist, and while no one is advocating to eliminate other parts of speech, it is important avoid cluttering them with adverbs, adjectives, and phrases.
Think of it this way…say you go to a concert to hear Julie London. Every time Julie sings, the back-up singers chime in; you can barely differentiate Julie’s voice. You can hear her, but it’s not as powerful. In writing, your nouns and verbs are Julie.
How to Make Sure Your Nouns & Verbs Sing
To make nouns and verbs center stage, practice writing simply until you get the hang of it. This will help you better see when and where descriptors can chime in.
It had been five long years since anyone lived in the abandoned house. She pushed open the creaky window. The gossamer curtains fluttered as the room’s musky stench mingled with the lingering promise of afternoon rain.
It had been five years since anyone lived in the house. She opened the window. The curtains fluttered as the room’s musky stench mingled with the promise an afternoon rain.
The first paragraph has a lot of redundancies and unnecessary clutter.
Saying the five years were long is cliché. Were they really long years? It’s an empty descriptor because there’s nothing here to show why the years were long.
Abandoned is repetitive. If no one had lived there in five years, then we can reason it’s abandoned.
Pushed open is unnecessary description. When one opens a window, we can see them pushing it either out or up. Is there any other way to open a window? If the window is lifted open, then you’d want to clarify that as that’s definitely not typical. Alternately, if she throws the window open or punches them open (not sure how that would work, per say), then that’s okay to write because it tells us about her mood. You wouldn’t need, “She throws the windows open in a rage,” because the action of throwing them open sufficiently clarifies she’s in a temper.
Is it a creaky window? If so, you can justify the modifier because it adds sound to an otherwise silent scene.
Do we need to know they’re gossamer curtains? Like the creaky window, they add to the visual; though, since they’re fluttering, you can assume they’re made from a light material. The scene works without that adjective.
Why is the promise of rain lingering? If you think about it, that barely makes sense.
Self-Editing Your Writing
When you self-edit, constantly look for where you can trim the fat. What words are superfluous? Is the picture clear without added descriptors? For example, in this piece, I wrote, “Every time Julie starts to sing,” and then I backed up. Just saying, “Every time Julie sings,” communicates the same idea, but it’s crisper.
The above is an example of filler words. Saying someone is “about to” or “going toward” or is “turning and”, etc. are filler words and are arguably more offensive than an excess of adjectives and adverbs.
I digress. You can edit your writing by reading closely and by asking if the descriptor is needed to get the point across. Alternately, look for verbs that do double-duty. By that I mean, if you have a character who is coming through the door, you could say they kicked the door, burst through the door, crept into the room, pressed an ear to the door before pushing it open, etc. These verbs take the place of saying that the person entering is angry, excited, scared, or reluctant.
So, to recap:
Practice writing simply—think nouns and verbs, nouns and verbs, nouns and verbs
Edit your writing for fillers
Ask if the descriptors you use are essential
Be able to specify why the descriptors are essential (i.e., creaking adds sound to an otherwise silent scene)
Find where verbs can do double-duty
Doing this will enable your writing to sing. The other parts of speech will add harmony to your writing, not overwhelm it. You’ll also be able to more clearly see where your story is. Happy writing!
If this kind of language clean-up isn’t your thing, no worries…that’s why editors exist. If you’re looking for an editor who’s passionate about language as well as story, contact me, Vonnie York, and let me help you make your writing sing.