Whole books have been written on how to write, brimming with advice from authors, many of whom are dead. And if you listen to it a lot, you will become confused.
Because every writer has to figure it out in a way that makes sense for them.
As I read diverse writing tips this week from famous authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway, I was struck by how we each have to make our own way, develop our own rules, find our own voices in the works we create.
For a time, my Twitter profile included “loves strong verbs and a good pinot noir,” or something to that effect. Once someone asked me, “@JudyLeeDunn, what is a ‘strong verb’?”
This week, having reread one of my favorite Fitzgerald novels, The Great Gatsby, and coincidentally, his writing tips, I thought more about that question.
Use verbs, not adjectives, to keep your sentences moving. All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences.
And there it was. The reason I love strong verbs.
Six-year-olds know strong verbs when they see them
On the first day of my teaching career, a co-worker gave me some advice. “First graders are like the ocean. Never turn your back on them.”
As a first year teacher with first year students, when they came surging into my classroom every day, I quickly learned that she was right about that. Also, they were sponges, eager to soak up everything I showed them and taught them, with unbridled enthusiasm.
In that first year, I was blessed with an easygoing teddy bear of a principal who never went anywhere without a big grin on his face. He was an immense man, a jovial Irish Catholic, with a shock of red hair and freckles. When something amused him, he would throw his head back and deliver a deep, rich laugh that came from the bottom of his belly. To the thirty short, noisy people who inhabited my classroom, he must have seemed like a big, good giant.
Verbs keep sentences moving
One day, in search of a more engaging way to teach a lesson on simple sentence structure (my first graders were just beginning to put words together to write a declarative sentence), I hit on an idea. I pulled out a piece of blank butcher paper and grabbed a marking pen. We would begin writing a simple sentence, and then change the verb in each consecutive sentence—and nothing else.
To keep the attention of a squirmy class, I chose kids to act out each sentence and, to make it even more fun, I made their principal, Mr. Riggers, the subject of the sentence. We started with a simple, if boring, sentence:
Mr. Riggers walked down the hall.
(Who is the person?: Mr. Riggers.
What did Mr. Riggers do?: He walked down the hall.)
“What else could Mr. Riggers do?” I said. “Hmm. Maybe he could run down the hall. And I wrote:
Mr. Riggers ran down the hall.
And a student acted it out: their principal running. A hot discussion followed.
Joshua waved his hand. “But, Mrs. Dunn, we’re not supposed to run in the hall.”
“That’s right,” I said. “It’s a school rule. What do you think might have made Mr. Riggers break that rule? Why do you think he ran?”
The ideas ranged from “Maybe he was trying to catch a thief!” to “A bad guy might have been chasing him!” They concluded that he must have been frightened or very excited about something to run in the hall like that.
And they began to see that how you talk about what someone did (what we called “action words,” better known as verbs) gives us something to picture and can also tell our reader how the person might have been feeling. So, “Mr. Riggers was afraid” is hard to picture, but we all know what it looks like when someone is running.
We continued to construct sentences with new verbs, using Mr. Riggers as our subject. I wrote each sentence on the sheet of paper and one child or another acted it out for us, to show what the principal was doing. As we continued, the verbs the kids suggested got more outrageous, and funnier. Soon the entire class was laughing to the point of tears.
Mr. Riggers hopped down the hall.
Mr. Riggers stomped down the hall.
Mr. Riggers crawled down the hall.
And so on.
At just the time we got to:
Mr. Riggers skipped down the hall,
our principal, Mr. Riggers himself, walked into the room. He had heard the commotion and wondered what was going on in Mrs. Dunn’s room.
He stood there, eyes straining to read the sentences the kids had constructed. He looked at me, and over to the students who were seated cross-legged on the floor. I explained that we were learning about using strong action words when we write.
“Maybe Mr. Riggers walked backwards down the hall,” Cecilia quietly said.
At that, Mr. Riggers turned to the class and said, “Maybe he did.” And he took several steps backwards, until he was out of the classroom and into the hall.
And thirty six-year-olds squealed with laughter.
Now I don’t know what kind of writers they became later, but on that day, they were entranced with language—and the power of a well-placed verb.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said it well
Now, mind you, Fitzgerald was not saying, “Throw all those rascally adjectives out!” Note the strategically placed adjective, “moral,” in this sentence from The Great Gatsby:
“When I came back from the East last autumn, I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.”
He said that verbs make the sentence move. Using Keats’ poem, “Eve of Saint Agnes” as an example of “perhaps the finest technical poem in English,” he said:
A line like ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,’ is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement—the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.
Do you edit out many of your adjectives and adverbs in the revision process?
Do you agree with Fitzgerald, that the verb carries the sentence and plants the visual in the reader’s mind?