Sunday, November 6, 2011

Slay 'Em with Your Verbs

It’s a truism among writers that the most important word on the page is the verb. Beginning writers sometimes think it’s the adjective, but nothing works harder than a good, muscled-up verb.

Here is an example of muscular writing from Frances Lefkowtiz’s memoir To Have Not:

My brothers and I are released from the truck like air from a tire, and we scatter off to find a driftwood for a campfire. We help pitch our five-man ten behind dunes and out of the wind. Then we tighten up the hoods on our blue sweatshirts and go to play tag with the thick, foamy surf. Signs warn of rip tides, undertows, and sneaker waves, but we don’t need signs to tell us that we are not supposed to enter this water. Its danger advertises itself: thick gray wedges curl into sharp peaks before smacking with a loud pop against the beach. We run up, up, and way, to the dry sand, where the thunder of the surf subsides, and we give in to gravity and geography and emotion, dropping onto that dark , pigeon-colored sand, our faces to the sky.

You could almost use the verbs to plot a small arc of action. Strong verbs are not particularly showy. You don’t even notice them at first. They simply sweep you up into the swirl of the language. But they make writing more vigorous or, as an Irish writing teacher of mine used to say: They fill it with verve. Even if you know this little truism, which you probably do, we need to be reminded of it from time to time. That's what Frances' memoir does for me -- reminds me of how transformative writing can be.

Does your writing seem a little flabby? Look at the verbs. Could they be stronger? If so, then shoot some steroids into your sentences. Don’t worry. It’s legal.

WIY: Make a list of ten things a dentist or a carpenter does. Now use those verbs in a passage that has nothing to do with dentistry or carpentry.

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