The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Verbs are your friends, but don’t choose the undesirables

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

06 September.PNGHere’s a little point that’s been bothering me a great deal while reading assignments recently.

Have you used the strongest verbs you possibly can? He walked to the door? You need hardly bother to tell us. But does he stride, amble, limp, plod, hobble, lurch, mince…?

That will mean something. “Walk” is kind of lame, don’t you think? If there’s nothing special about the way she gets to the kitchen, you scarcely need tell us she walks there.

She couldn’t think of the right verb. It escaped her utterly. Bloody thing, just as she had it in her grasp, it slithered away. Oh hell, perhaps another coffee would help.

As she waited for the kettle to boil, she gazed out into the kitchen garden.  Mary was crossing the yard with her bucket … By jove, she had it. Eureka, she had thought of the perfect verb: Mary “walked” across the yard. What a marvellous verb. It said everything she wanted about Mary, how she felt and the kind of person she was.

Hmm.

We usually make the leap with characters who move about. If you’re going to tell us she walked, there must be a reason. It has a job to do. A good verb can tell us an enormous amount about your character and how she’s feeling.

I came across another recently: He slammed her car door. Now, why on earth would he slam her door? My father would have been tempted to punch the man. He was very particular about his car doors and how they should be treated.

There must be a reason your character chooses to slam a door. If he’s simply greeting his girlfriend and accompanying her into the house, you don’t need to tell us he slammed, closed, or clicked it closed. We assume he doesn’t leave it standing wide open.

If he’s angry, he can slam it. Then it shows us something and it has a real job to do.

If your character pulls her friend into the road, isn’t it better to have her clamp a hand on her arm and wrench her forward onto the road, or shove her in the small of her back, or tug her …?

And this means (Please, please…) avoiding the generic verbs like “plonking” into chairs or drinks down on tables, or “grabbing” everything from car keys to dance partners.

Verbs are your friends. But verbs like “grab”, “plump” and “plonk” are the wrong sort of friends. They’re lazy and undesirable. Try not to mix with them.

***

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

Jo-Anne Richards
Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, was originally published by Headline Review in the UK, and has recently been rereleased as one of the prestigious Picador Africa Classics collection. She ran the Honours programme in Journalism & Media Studies at Wits University for fifteen years.
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