My best writing secret


As I’ve relaunched this website, I realize it has two distinct goals: to share information about my fiction and to present my skills and experience as a consultant writing web and marketing copy for institutions and companies. Should this really be two websites, I wondered? Maybe three, since I also feature some of my journalism?

No, I decided. It’s all writing. I’ve devoted my career to writing, and the site is about all my writing. Though the intended audience, organizational logic, and voice differ wildly as I write in these different arenas, the fundamentals stay the same.

So here’s my main secret: Great writing stands on apt nouns and verbs. Subject –> verb –> object. That’s it. Choosing which noun or verb is the writer’s primary art.

Adverbs modify verbs, and using one usually means you could choose a better verb. Adjectives modify nouns and usually mean you could’ve chosen a better noun. You do use adjectives and adverbs — but only after you’ve first tried to pick a noun or verb that can stand alone.

When you discipline yourself to seek nouns and verbs, you begin to write elegant, concise, direct sentences. And pulling a noun or verb from one aspect of life into a sentence about another enriches your writing with connotations from the source of the word. You introduce literary devices into your sentences.

From a crime short story I just entered in a contest. You may or may not agree they’re good, but you can see how I worked to find the noun or verb for the job:

“The nicotine rush conspired with caffeine and adrenaline and rage to widen his eyes and send static across the skin of his hands and forearms.” Conspired. Static.

“The flashlight’s parabola found an open electrical junction box in the ceiling.” Parabola. Found.

“This act had grown inside him for months, demanded to be born into the world.” Grown. Demanded. To be born.

Notice that, except for maybe “parabola,” all these words are from the everyday 10,000-word English vocabulary. These are words your readers are fluent in. That makes your writing fluent. Dropping a William Safire special on your reader — a word they probably don’t know — stops them cold. Doesn’t convey meaning. Makes you look pretentious. Good writing takes words we know well and combines them in ways that show us the world fresh.

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This article has 1 comment

  1. Jacque Duffy 07/11/2011, 7:01 pm:

    Well I’ve back read quite a few of your posts this morning and I have learnt quite a few things and had some things I already knew confirmed. Your blog also gives me food for thought regarding my own blog and how I should perhaps approach writing it.

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