Category Archives: Description

Verbs: Pick Your Weapon! Carefully…

6 strategies for effectively using verbs - improve your writingWith permission from the author, I’m going to share a few phrases from one of my favorite clients. This material comes from a chapter of a novel set in the Antebellum South.

Spring was on the verge of turning into summer in East Georgia.
The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue…
The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.
Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating…
…sounds and scents grew stronger.
Hawks floated silently in the sky,… searching the earth below for dinner.
Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony…
…cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise…

A lot could be said about these fragments of description. But let’s focus on one aspect of the copy — possibly the crucial aspect: its verbs.

As you know, a verb is a part of speech that expresses the action going on in an utterance. In daily speech, we tend to be fairly loose with our verbs: we use verbs of being to form unnecessarily verbose turns of phrase (“she was of the opinion that” when “she thought” would do the job faster and better); we cling to the passive voice (“mistakes were made“); we use vague or bland or squishy terms when a stronger verb would get the idea across more directly, more clearly, and more memorably…oh, we could go on and on.

None of those misdemeanors is ungrammatical or unidiomatic. But as writers, we get to edit our language before the reader has to “listen” to it. And so, we can do better.

Here are six strategies to accomplish that goal:

1. Whenever possible, use action verbs, not verbs of being (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been)

2. Avoid analogues to verbs of being, such as seem or appear, unless there’s a good reason to use one.

3. Instead of a verb + an adverb (a word ending in -ly, or other modifiers of action such as rather, somewhat, quite, and the like), try to pick a verb that carries the meaning of the action plus the adverb. For example: instead of “she walked slowly across the campus,” try “she ambled, she strolled, she meandered, she plodded, she wandered, she dawdled….”

4. Prefer strong, expressive verbs to wishy-washy ones.

5. Avoid the passive voice unless there’s a good reason to use it.

6. Use the simple present (he goes) or the simple past (he went) rather than the progressive tenses (he is going; he was going), unless there’s a good reason for it.

Uh huh…isn’t that enlightening? Well…let’s see if we can make it enlightening by applying these principles to Author’s gilded words. With a little alchemy and those six tips, we can turn that chapter from gold-plate to 14-carat.

Spring was on the verge of turning into summer…

Zzzzzzzz…snort! Oh, sorry. I dozed off there.

Why is this sentence such a snoozer? Because Author missed his chance to engage a vivid, strong verb. Instead, he brazenly flouted Rule 1 and inserted a bland, pablumesque verb of being (was) plus a verbose prepositional phrase (on the verge) plus another verbose prep phrase (of turning) plus yet a THIRD prep phrase (into summer).

What does on the verge of mean? Maybe “about to”? Spring was about to turn into summer. That’s a little bit better. But boring. Still. Booooring.

 We’ve gotta get rid of that verb of being! How can we express the idea that summer is y-cumen in with a single, expressive action word?

Spring was merging into summer
Spring was shifting into summer…
Spring was blending into summer…
Spring was bleeding into summer…
Spring was melting into summer…
Spring was verging into summer…

Some of these possibilities are better than other. “Spring was bleeding…,” for example, might work despite its whiff of the purple because this chapter portrays people in slavery. “To verge” is a little rarified — I personally would avoid it. To my ear, “was shifting” sounds like a Ford Fairlane with four on the floor: jarring in the context. “Merge,” “blend,” “melt”: any of those might work, and any would improve on “was” + prep phrase + prep phrase + prep phrase.

Now what if we apply Rule 6 (prefer simple to progressive tenses)?

Spring merged into summer in East Georgia.
Spring bled into summer in East Georgia.
Spring blended into summer in East Georgia.

Hot dang! This is looking better. Much, much better. Two minor edits — pick a strong verb and put it in a simple instead of a progressive tense — and now we have a pretty arresting opening sentence. And I like the “bleed” verb a lot better. It’s good. Very good.

The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue…
The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.

All right. Let’s remember de Maupassant’s rule: never use the same word twice on the same page. So: we’d like to get rid of at least one of those changings, without getting too “elegant” about it. And as we can see, we have a Rule 6 issue, too: was changing is in in the past progressive. Kill.

The “changing” choice is painfully bland. Dull. Vanilla’s nice in vanilla ice cream, but folks, we ain’t makin’ ice cream here! How was it changing? What result did the change effect?

The sun’s pale yellow began to heat into an incandescent glare.
The sun’s winter yellow flared into incandescence.
Sunlight intensified, pale yellow heating toward a furnace-like incandescence.
The sun’s disk brightened, winter’s pale yellow shifting into summer’s full incandescence.
The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and took on a burning incandescent glare.
The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and assumed a burning incandescent glare.

Any of these would likely do. The second has brevity to recommend it. The third strikes me as fairly evocative; so does the second. But whatever: any one of them improves on “was changing from.” So would “the weather was getting hot.”

Trying the process on the second example:

The sky shed its wintry pallor and deepened toward azure.
The pale winter sky deepened into a richer, darker blue.
Winter’s pale blue sky grew deeper, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.
Winter’s pale blue sky deepened, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.

Moving on…

Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating…
…sounds and scents grew stronger.

Oh dear. Georgia had rock bands in 1855? Probably not. What can we do with this?

For starters, let’s get rid of the quasi-verb of being, seemed. Then let’s convert the adjectival participles to verbs:

Life vibrated and pulsed.

Uhm…ohhhkaayyyy. I suppose. Or maybe not: brings to mind some sort of alien blob, doesn’t it? It Came from Outer Space! But it does boil three words into one: seemed more vibrant to vibrated; [seemed more] pulsating to pulsed. None too felicitous, though.

Life, vibrant and pulsating, emanated new sounds and scents.

Love those sesquipedalian words! But…unless you have a good reason to emit them, maybe you shouldn’t. The narrator here speaks in the voice of a highly educated Black man. He can get away with the the adjectival participles, and he surely would have the word “emanate” at his fingertips. So…maybe. But would anyone really say that? Maybe not.

Life, vibrant and pulsating, filled the air with new sounds and scents.

Better! Moving on.

Hawks floated silently in the sky,… searching the earth below for dinner.

All right. I mean, sort of OK. “Floated silently” demands two words when one will do. “Searching the earth below” feels like a dull way to anthropomorphize a raptor. Hawks do not have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they grab what they can get and bolt it down when they can get it. Hate that. It annoys me. Fix.

My favorite image for a raptor or avian scavenger “floating in the sky” is “ride a cold column of air.” Don’t recall where I stole that turn of phrase: probably from Wallace or Page Stegner or maybe from Scott Momaday. Whatever: don’t use it. It’s red-hot. Can we try to come up with an image of our own? At the very least let’s look for something that means “floated silently.”

Hawks brooded overhead, searching the earth for an unwary meal.
Silent hawks gazed down from the sky, searching…
Quiet as owls, hawks hovered above, searching…
Quiet as gentle death, hawks hovered above…

Enough of that. Don’t just sit there: come up with something of your own. You’re supposed to be a writer!

Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony…

Passive voice!! Plus a convoluted series of participles, plus a sesquipedalianism. Oh, Lord, spare us, thy hapless readers…

Let’s apply Rule 5 and then also try to empty the marbles out of Author’s mouth:

Dogs, some near and some distant, barked and yelped, adding their measure to Nature’s steel-drum beat.
Dogs near and far barked and yelped, adding…
Barking dogs harmonized in a raucous chorus, sending up a sociable racket that no ears could evade. (Note the infelicitous rhyme here — in a real revision, it would disqualify this effort. The image of the evasive ears is a little weird, too. Remember: it’s usually better to kill than to add words. Thus… “Barking dogs near and far sent up a sociable racket that no one could evade.”)

Or some such.

...cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise…

Tacking adverbs onto a feeble verb does not make the feeble verb any less feeble. Write that on the blackboard 100 times!

Cats, hunters like the hawks above, skulked in the grass,…
Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, slunk through the grass…
Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, stalked their prey through grass and shrubs…

Of these, only “stalked” strikes me as reasonably felicitous. In a single word, it evokes “moved about stealthily,” and it also takes an object (prey), reinforcing the hunter simile between the cats and the hawks. Keep. Throw out the other two.

Notice that often one’s attempts to revise will yield something almost as terrible (oh heck: make that “even worse”!) than the first effort. The business with the raucous chorus ( 😀 ) and the ambulatory ears is probably the most laugh-inducing example here. This is why the writer plans on revising and editing several times, not just as the work progresses but in at least one go-through (preferably two or three) from beginning to end. Specifically on the subject of verbs, though…

Here’s the thing, my loves:

The verb is the most powerful weapon in your writer’s arsenal. Some verbs are .22s, some are .38s, some are .45s…and so on. Pick the weapon that fits your purpose.

In general, try to use something stronger than a BB, but to avoid purple prose, don’t pull out a cannonball until it’s called for. When writing description, select some mid-range calibre, so it sounds like you’re speaking plain English even though the verbs are carrying their full weight in meaning and imagery.

Do not shoot yourself in the foot with the passive voice. Align the verb’s sights with your target and do not imagine a bevy of adverbs will shotgun your meaning into the bull’s-eye. Use the plainest, simplest weapon that will get the job done. And shoot straight.

Write tight.

—E. B. White

Models: Where Do Your Characters Come From?

Writing fiction - Where do your characters come from?Where do the people in your fiction come from? Do you even know where they came from?

I have to admit that sometimes I have no idea. Fire-Rider, the first of several soon-to-be-published stories of an invented world in the far, far future, teems with characters who bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met or even read about. Homicidal warlords and foot soldiers, powerful ruling women and their sister wives, a boy prostitute and a prosperous madam, a tribe of young refugees unhomed by ceaseless wars, a woman hunter and trapper, the foreman of a vast ranch-like estate, a healer who’s also a warlord, a wandering teacher and bard…whence did these people arise?

Athena springs from head of zeus

Athena springs from the head of Zeus

Well, out of the writer’s mind, obviously. Often I think that each character is a fragment of the writer’s consciousness, some part of her or his own personality in some way hidden until it pops out, full blown from the head of Zeus, and materializes in the form of a new (albeit imagined) human being.

Other times I think, “That is just not possible!” These people do things I have no experience with; they know things and say things that I could never know or say. I have to do hours of research to envision some kind of understanding of their world, their lives, and their loves.

Is there ever a real-life model for such characters?

Hapa Cottrite

Hapa Cottrite

Occasionally. Just now I’m writing a chapter in the first-person voice of a character who’s a kind of public intellectual, to the extent possible in a time when almost no one can read or write — that would be the wandering teacher and bard. After Hapa Cottrite coalesced in my imagination, I realized that he resembles one of my editorial clients, an international banking CEO and long-time ex-pat with a sharp mind, broad curiosity, and zest for living among foreign peoples. Once that dawned on me, I began to model Cottrite explicitly after this man, to the extent that their moods, outlook, and even physical appearance are similar.

But most times, there’s no visible connection between a character in one of my tales and a real-world human being. They don’t resemble anyone I know, because no one I know lives in a reimagined analog of the European Middle Ages amalgamated with life in medieval Mongolia.

Probably they’re modeled on what I know about life in the medieval period and about the world-view of people who inhabited that world. That’s considerable: before I finished the doctorate in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean English literature and history, I wanted to specialize in the medieval period. So, I took quite a few upper-division and graduate courses in medieval literature (this stuff comprised both British and continental works, because my undergraduate major was in French). And I still edit scholarly works of medieval history.

Some pretty heady stuff went on during those times. And it was weird. If you or I could magically step through a time warp and come out in 1250, we would feel like we’d landed on another planet. That’s how different those people were from us.

William the Conqueror and his two half-brothers

William the Conqueror and his two half-brothers

So I suppose you could say the Fire-Rider characters are sort of “modeled” on what I happen to know of a typical medieval warlord, informed to some extent by what I’ve learned about Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time. That’s pretty broad. And since no two of these characters are the same, it’s hard to say where their individual personalities came from.

The women’s roles, however, are completely re-imagined and warped. Never in human history have women, aristocratic or otherwise, done what Fire-Rider‘s women do. In their cases, I’ve had to invent, invent, and re-invent. Even to imagine what they look like, to say nothing of what they get up to, requires a great deal of focused, concentrated work.

Maybe we could say, then, that our characters come out of our experience, learned and observed, and out of our invention, purely imagined.

Or maybe they spring from the head of Zeus?

When you’re ready for an editor or publisher, contact us.

Just the Facts, Ma’am. Lots of them…

Writing tips - facts and details spice things up and make the world real to your readers.I’ve been revisiting one of my very favorite writers, John McPhee. How can I count the ways I love McPhee? His astonishing style, his engaging voice, his eclectic subject matter, his amazing story structure, his mind-boggling erudition, his sense of humor…it goes on and on.

One of the things I especially love about John McPhee is the hefty, dense factual content of his prose. To say you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something is to understate grossly. Truth to tell, you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something in almost every sentence.

Some of it is observed fact:

Carol [dissecting a snapping turtle killed by a car]…talked to the dead turtle, soothingly, reassuringly, nurse to patient, doctor to child, and when she reached in under the plastron and found an ovary, she shifted genders with a grunt of surprise. She pulled out some globate yellow fat and tossed it into the pond. Hundreds of mosquito fish came darting through the water, sank their teeth, shook their heads, worried the fat. Carol began to move fat from the turtle’s body. The eggs were like ping-balls in size, shape, and color, and how they all fitted into the turtle was more than I could comprehend, for there were fifty-six of them in there, fully finished, and a number that had not quite taken their ultimate form. (John McPhee, Travels in Georgia, in The John McPhee Reader)

In four sentences we learn snapping turtles contain ball-shaped chunks of yellow fat, that mosquitofish will eat flesh (or at least free handouts of turtle fat), that snapping turtle eggs are as big as ping-pong balls, that a mature female can lay upwards of 56 of them, and that this Carol knows how to dissect a large, hard-shelled reptile.

His prose is informed as much by research as by observation, though:

The purpose of such projects [we’re viewing a type of reclamation project called stream channelization] was to anticipate and eliminate floods, to drain swamps, to increase cropland, to channel water toward freshly created reservoirs serving and attracting new industries and new housing developments. Water sports would flourish on the new reservoirs, hatchery fish would proliferate below the surface: new pulastions in the life of the rural South. The Soil Conservation Service was annually spending about fifteen million dollars on stream-channelization projects, providing among other things, newly arable land to farmers who already had land in the Soil Bank. The Department of Agriculture could not do enough for the Southern farmer, whose only problem was bookkeeping. He got money for keeping his front forty idle. His bottomland went up in value when the swamps were drained, and then more money came for not farming the drained land. Years earlier, when a conservationist had been someone who plowed land along natural contours, the Soil Conservation Service had been the epicenter of the conservation movement, decorated for its victories over erosion of the land. Now, to a new generation that had discovered ecology, the SCS was the enemy. Its drainage programs tampered with river mechanics, upsetting the relationships between bass and otter, frog and owl. The Soil Conservation Service had grown over the years into a bureau of fifteen thousand people, and all the way down at the working point, the cutting edge of things, was Chap Causey, in the cab of his American dragline, hearing nohting but the pounding of his big Jimmy diesel while he eliminated a river, eradicated a swamp. (John McPhee, “Travels in Georgia”)

In ten sentences, we learn the following:

  1. Stream channelization is a flood control technique.
  2. It’s used to drain swamps.
  3. It’s used to increase cropland
  4. It’s used to channel water into reservoirs.
  5. It benefits sporting, and real estate development industries.
  6. By 1975 (when “Travels in Georgia” was published), the Soil Conservation Service was spending $15 million a year on stream channelization.
  7. The supposed benefits of the projects were often redundant and served to profit those who were already plenty affluent and who had already acquired sufficient wealth through government programs.
  8. Southern farmers benefited from government support projects by collecting money to leave land idle.
  9. Southern farmers benefited from soil channelization when swamp draining enhanced the value of their bottomland.
  10. Southern farmers further benefited by collecting federal dollars to leave this newly valuable bottomland fallow.
  11. The SCS used to be one of the nation’s premier conservation agencies, thanks to programs to prevent soil erosion.
  12. By 1975, the SCS had built a reputation for harming the environment, largely because of its drainage programs.
  13. Drainage projects harm ecological balances such as those involving bass and otters and frogs and owls.
  14. By 1975, the SCS employed 15,000 people.
  15. The operator of the American (brand name) dragline crane engaged in the project at hand was named Chap Causey.
  16. The engine of an American dragline crane runs on diesel.
  17. The crane’s engine was made by GMC.

Think of that: 17 hard facts in 10 sentences. That’s almost 2 facts per sentence, and it’s not even one of McPhee’s true tours de force.

Being a writer of what today we call creative nonfiction, McPhee uses observed fact (and sometimes researched fact) for literary as well as journalistic purposes. To paint a setting, for example:

A stop for a D.O.R. [“dead on road”] always brought the landscape into detailed focus. Pitch coming out of a pine. Clustered sows behind a fence. An automobile wrapped in vines. A mailbox. “Donald Foskey.” His home. Beyond the mailbox, a set of cinder blocks and on the cinder blocks a mobile home. (“Travels in Georgia”)

Or to perform a deft, swift characterization:

…Carol turned on the radio and moved the dial. If she could find some Johnny Cash, it would elevate her day. Some Johnny Cash was not hard to find in the airwaves of Georgia. There he was now, resonantly singing about his Mississippi Delta land, where, on a sharecropping farm, he grew up. Carol smiled and closed her eyes. In her ears — pierced ears — were gold maple leaves that seemed to move under the influence of the music.

Facts — accurate facts, astutely observed details — are the heart of journalism, but they’re also the heart of any writing, fiction, essay, and even poetry included. You doubt it? Check out, for example, a random passage from Alice Munro:

That was the time of their being women together. Home permanents were tried on Juliet’s stubborn fine hair, dressmaking sessions produced the outfits like nobody else’s, suppers were peanut-butter-tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on the evenings Sam stayed late for a school meeting. Stories were told and retold about Sara’s boyfriends and girlfriends, the jokes they played and the fun they had, in the days when Sara was a schoolteacher too, before her  heart got too bad. Stories from the time before that, when she lay in bed with rheumatic fever and had the imaginary friends Rollo and Maxine who solved mysteries, even murders, like the characters in certain children’s books. Glimpses of Sam’s besotted courtship, disasters with the borrowed car, the time he showed up at Sara’s door disguised as a tramp. (Alice Munro, “Soon,” in Runaway)

  1. Juliet and Sara were close friends.
  2. Juliet has fine hair.
  3. They tried to permanent it.
  4. They ate awful food when one of them didn’t have to cook for a man.
  5. They related stories from their lives.
  6. Sara was once a schoolteacher.
  7. Sara had a bad heart.
  8. Sara’s heart trouble stemmed from rheumatic fever.
  9. Sara’s rheumatic fever probably occurred when she was a child.
  10. Sam drinks, or possibly he’s just clumsy
  11. Sam got into some sort of trouble with a borrowed car.
  12. Sam has done some odd things.

Twelve facts in five sentences. Not bad!

It’s the details that allow the reader to visualize, understand, and absorb your message. So facts, whether they come from research or observation (and the imagined facts of the fiction writer or poet are based on observation and experience) are indispensable. Writing is a process of reporting research.

Every writer needs facts. Lots of facts.

Get them. Don’t neglect them!