I have a bookcase dedicated to my writing obsession. Some of the books and guides go back 25 years, but the information isn’t stale. It’s as relevant now as it was when I had stars in my eyes and relished every “A” I earned in my college English classes. I’m still a little like that but the stars have mellowed into planets, goals that are less glamorous and more practical.
My classmates liked to call me The Verb Vixen. I love active verbs. English is full of action verbs and it is our job as authors to find that perfect word, to slip it into a sentence and watch portions of a reader’s brain light up with clarity and perhaps even epiphany. As we critiqued each other’s chapters and prose, expectations from my penning in the margins included a few verbs to try out in place of a lackluster “there was”.
In fact, the best advice I ever read came from Lucile Vaughan Payne’s “The Lively Art of Writing”, a book first published (and as my dog-eared copy will confirm) at least fifty years ago.
“Don’t use the word there – ever.”
Easier said than done, but it’s one of my favorite personal rules that I adhere to religiously. I run my documents through the “find” feature and if it actually does find that I’ve slipped in a “there”, I will rip it out and find another method for expression. Of course, the word is perfectly acceptable in social circles, litigious documents, and high school essays. It’s also very difficult to rework “It’s over there,” but it can be done “It’s on the table”.
Take a look at these examples you will find in most beginning writers’ works.
There was a noise. There was a creaking sound. There was a fight. YAWN.
A bell rang. A door creaked. A fight erupted. See how The Verb Vixen has slaughtered your prose? I apologize. Work, you say? If you aren’t giving your all to give readers a reason to read, hang up your pen. This editing, this challenge, is the very heart of an author’s voice, their style, the difference between a text book of information and a long novel full of emotional adventures. Strive for clarity, reach for diversity, splatter words on your pages that make a difference between okay writing and spectacular story telling.
No need to find words that few people have ever heard. That’s being pretentious and condescending. You must also vary your verbs. How many different ways can you describe a person taking a walk? Don’t put an adverb with “walk” and call it done. A person can walk quickly or slowly. A person can also stroll, stride, lumber, sprint, step, stumble, drag, jog, and those are what came out of my head. If I pick up a thesaurus, I’ll find more interesting and archaic words like trod, trek, stomp, march, troop, wander, mosey, storm, flounce, saunter, hike, trek … you get the idea.
In developing your unique voice, you may desire a mix in your sentence structures, a heavy or light employment pronouns, and groove into a comfortable point of view for all your characters. You may notice that I have actively neglected to use the phrase “in my opinion” or some other similar nonsense. Of course it’s my opinion! I’m writing it. I also am strict about unique adjectives like “unique.” A thing cannot be “very unique”. It is either unique or it’s not. Watch out for such sloppy writing. It’s inexcusable. If that’s what you plan to do, go write scripts for television newscasters, but please excuse yourself from the fiction market and save the rest of us hours of agony tramping through useless words on the page.
Punctuation matters; it could save lives. “Did the cat eat Mary?” or “Did the cat eat, Mary?” Know your homonyms and brush up on contractions. Those are my knuckle rappers to you or besides a visit from a verb vixen you may have to confront a grammar Nazi, too.
Find your voice. Seek it out. What stands out in your writing? Do you love the first person point of view? Can you write in true omniscient, a POV not often used in the last few decades? Do you use the word toward or towards? Both are correct, so pick one and stick with it, at least throughout a single project. Your voice is what makes your writing yours. Take a pilgrimage to discover it, take a road that no one has told you about, including me. You have choices. Choose.
This post is contributed as Guest post by H. S. Rivney.
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