Write While True Episode 30: Transcript

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I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 30 of Write While True.

The name of this podcast is a program that goes into an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game.

It’s like a game of catch, which is even more fun when you get better at it, but the only way to do that is to keep playing.

So in each episode, I’ll tell you something I learned about writing, and then I’ll throw you the ball with a writing challenge or a prompt

Nouns and Verbs

This is season 3 of Write While True. I accidentally started this season 2 weeks ago when I talked about complex sentences, and I continued it last week with loose sentences. The theme of this season is the basics of words, and sentences, and paragraphs.

This episode is about nouns and verbs.

Every book on writing tells you to avoid adverbs (and even adjectives). I find that hard to do in first drafts, but I do try to remove them in edits. You can tell that I haven’t done enough editing if you see that I “really like” something or that a new programming language is “pretty good”.

Right after they tell you to remove the adverbs, they’ll go on to tell you to make the nouns and verbs more specific.

In this podcast, I’ve been using David Lambuth’s Golden Book on Writing for examples lately. Here’s what he says:

Nouns and verbs are the bones and sinews of speech. Nouns build up the bony structure of the sentence, verbs produce motion. The more concrete nouns and active verbs you use, the more forceful your writing. The novice naturally imagines that piling up adjectives adds definiteness and that sticking in adverbs adds intensity, but it usually the other way round. Adjectives and adverbs are often necessary to complete your meaning and make it exact, but they lessen the force of the sentence unless you dole them out stingily as a miser doles out gold.

He goes on for a few more paragraphs and provides some examples.

In The Elements of Style, E. B. White added a rule that he called “Write with Nouns and Verbs”. He writes

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

There isn’t much more to the rule, and even his example is really a counter-example that he uses to show a poem where the adjectives shine.

So, although I have heard this rule often, I haven’t learned how to apply it, and I still fall back to adverbs and adjectives. I try to remove them in edits, but what I haven’t been doing is finding better nouns and verbs, so my sentences are boring.

A practical exercise for finding nouns and verbs

But, I just read a more modern writing classic, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I love this book and will have more to say about it. It’s full of practical advice and exercises.

For this particular problem, she has a chapter called “The Action of the Sentence” which starts:

Verbs are very important. They are the action and energy of the sentence. Be aware of how you use them.

Great. She starts the same way as Lambuth and White did in their rules, but then, she jumps into an exercise to help you do it. I’ll describe it to you

Take out a piece of paper. Divide it into three columns. In the first column, write down any ten nouns. Then, fold back it over so you can’t see those nouns and look at the second column.

At the top of the second column write down an occupation. She gives examples like chef, pilot, or doctor. Then, for the occupation that you chose, list all the verbs related it. In the book, Goldberg picked chef and then wrote down cut, slice, fry, marinate, bake, boil, etc. Write down as many as you can think of. You don’t need to limit yourself to 10. In fact, try to come with a lot more than 10.

Finally, open up the paper. Now you can see both columns. A column of nouns and a column of verbs. Pick a random noun and then find a verb to go with it and complete the sentence. You’ll be writing sentences like:

Dinosaurs marinate in the earth / The lilac sliced the sky into purple

This will get you thinking of and using concrete and specific nouns and verbs that exert themselves to describe your scene. You won’t need to rely on adjectives and adverbs as much, and when you do, they’ll have more impact.

I would also recommend not trying to do this when you are writing a first draft. Just keep writing—try to get through your first draft and don’t worry too much about your adverbs and adjectives. Moving your writing towards nouns and verbs is easier if you leave it for an editing pass. Way back in episodes 6 and 7, I spoke about Joanna Wiebe’s idea of sweep editing. This is where you go through your work in several sweeps. In each sweep, you only fix one kind of thing. If you have this problem, like I do, and you use a lot of adverbs, I would try to fix that in a dedicated sweep where you get into the zone of removing the adverbs and finding a better verb instead. Maybe before you do the sweep, you could try this exercise out.

In fact, try it right now. Take out a piece of paper and do the exercise. Write down 10 nouns, then pick an occupation and write down every verb you can think of related to it. See if you can get to at least 15. Then match them up—one noun and one verb— and complete the sentence.

Thank you for listening. This has been Write While True, a podcast that is ok with infinite loops, as long as they’re fun.