I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 35 of Write While True.
Write While True is an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game. A game we play for fun and to get better at it. Like a game of catch.
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.
Finding Nouns and Verbs
This is the eighth episode of season three of this podcast.
This season is loosely about the building blocks of writing: words, sentences, paragraphs, and the parts of speech.
In episode 30, which was called “Nouns and Verbs”, I suggested that you use nouns and verbs rather than adverbs and adjectives to carry the descriptive weight in the sentence. I shared an exercise for finding those nouns and verbs. You can go back and listen to that episode for the details, but the first part was to just list some nouns.
If you did that, you probably came up with a list of nouns that were the typical person, place, or thing nouns. Nouns like dog, chef, Paris, spoon, book, house, and you probably didn’t reach for nouns that were concepts. That’s what we would instinctively do when listing nouns. We learned it from Schoolhouse Rock.
I recently came across the phrase zombie nouns, which was coined by Helen Sword. She’s an author and currently runs a private consultancy to help writers. Back in 2012, she was teaching at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and she wrote an article for the New York Times called Zombie Nouns. I put a link to it in the show notes.
The kind of nouns she’s talking about are the nouns that have been created from verbs or adjectives by adding suffixes to them that make them sound a little more abstract. One example is to take the verb calibrate and turn it into the noun calibration. She calls these nouns zombie nouns because she says they “cannibalize active verbs and suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”
The article gives many examples, so go read it to see what she’s talking about. I want to share one that she found in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. He took a Bible verse and then translated it into what he called modern English. The kind of writing he railed against in this book. It’s what you see in a lot of business and government writing and is full of these zombie nouns.
Here’s the original Bible verse:
I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happened to them all.
Orwell took that and translated it, using zombie nouns, into the kind of language he said was used by bureaucrats. Here it is:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity but that a considerable element of the predictable must invariably be taken into account.
Orwell’s satirical rewrite is so over the top that it’s easy to see the problem. In your real writing, it’s probably more subtle.
Helen Sword has a website, writersdiet.com, where she has a tool that you can paste in text and it will try to find these zombie nouns for you. I took the transcript of the last episode of this podcast and pasted it in there to see what it would say.
The tool highlights the zombie words in blue. You can find them yourself pretty easily because they have suffixes like -ism or -tion or -ity.
Luckily, I didn’t have that many zombie words, and when I did have them, they weren’t the subject of the sentence. Let me share an example. The last episode was called “Word of the Day”, and it was about using a weird word as a prompt to drive your writing practice. I said “Imagine situations where they would be perfect.” Meaning the word of the day. Situations is a zombie word. I can do better by making my noun more concrete. For example, I could have said, “Imagine a story where the word would be perfect.”
The big a big problem with zombie nouns is they don’t help you visualize. A “story” is something the reader can think about. A “situation” is not as vivid.
As David Lambuth said in The Golden Book on Writing. “The nouns paint the picture, the verbs make it move.”
You can’t paint a picture with abstractions. We need to stick to the nouns we learned in grade school. Nouns that are a person a place or a thing. Something we can visualize. Something in the real world.
Here’s what I want you to try. Take a sample of your writing that is about 500 words. Go to the tool on writersdiet.com and paste in your text. I put a link to the website in the show notes.
Your zombie nouns will be highlighted in blue. Look through them.
Prioritize the sentences where the zombie noun is the subject of the sentence. Find a more concrete noun and then use a verb that carries the meaning that your zombie noun was trying to convey.
If you don’t have sentences with zombie subjects, that’s great, but look at your other uses. Remember how I replaced the abstract idea of a “situation” with the more vivid and specific word “story”.
Thanks for listening. This has been Write While True, where we’re ok with infinite loops, as long as they’re fun.