Strong Nouns and Verbs

I am a stickler for strong nouns and verbs. I got this bug from a college creative writing teacher. Perhaps the weakest sentence structure is one that begins with “it was” or “there were.” So often when I critique a manuscript, I ask the question in the comment balloon: “What is it? Who are they?” This creative writing teacher I had decades ago had this as his mantra: “Strong nouns and verbs, strong nouns and verbs . . .” It’s stuck with me ever since.

So, go through your manuscript and search for “it was” and “there were” and replace with a strong noun and verb. Instead of “It was raining hard,” try something more descriptive like “rain pelted the roof.” I even have a (gigantic) list of unnecessary words that I love (a little too much). I add to the list regularly, and I often use Word’s Find feature to locate those weak words, then think of others to replace them with. I also have another chart of cool verbs I’ve come to love, and will often refer to it when I feel I need a better, more evocative verb than the one stuck in my head or hastily plunked down in my manuscript. Only few writers will get brownie points for starting their sentences with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Even Snoopy got stuck on that first sentence (can you picture that Peanuts cartoon?)–no doubt because the noun and verb were so boring, he just could not get inspired to continue.

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  1. Oh, I do similar “tricks” and I’m so glad you mentioned this. In my “find” searches, I mostly focus on words or phrases I overuse.

    I’ve actually lightened up on making sure every verb and noun is strong, because some passages and transitions, or maybe the voice, call for something passive, but that’s rare, definitely not a topic that usually needs addressing!

    Strong nouns, and especially strong verbs, really make it a difference for me when reading a story. I love that you gave one great tip that will help people make their manuscripts shine.

  2. I found your post this morning particularly helpful, and used the find feature to weed out the ‘it was/there was’ sentences. It surprised me to find the number of ‘it was’s”. They have been replaced with stranger nouns and words or the sentence rearranged. Yet another layer of refinement for my WIP. Thanks.
    Nancy Popovich

  3. Thank you for this wonderful article – am wondering if you would be willing to share your list? For me, I tend to use the word “that” too much.

    Have a blessed day.

    1. Well, everyone should make their own list. I have my own words i use too much, and the verbs and adjectives I personally like, so I’m not going to post them, BUT a future post will give you a partial list of my “weasel words.” In the meantime you can start putting your own together!

  4. As just one more over-zealous proofreaders, I couldn’t help but notice your sentence:

    I add to the list regularly, and I often use Word’s Find feature to locate those weak words, then think of others to replace them with.”

    I believe the rule is to not use a preposition to end a sentence [with]. But I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that this was a rule “up with which I shall not put“.

    Apparently he believed the PM lives under a rule of his own; or that English is not American.

    Just my opinion and one of my pet peeves.

  5. Well, I follow Chicago Manual of Style as authority, and they have some interesting opinions, and have no trouble with ending a sentence with a proposition or even starting with one. Used to be you couldn’t start a sentence with “But…” But (doing it here) now it’s fine. They don’t like commas before “too” at the end of the sentence and neither do I. Language changes and sometimes our pet peeves come from ancient teaching in schools long ago and we sadly (maybe) have to leave them behind. You can follow the outdated rules in your own writing, but I supposed the point is it’s not PC anymore to enforce your personal style on others 🙂

  6. I’ve started editing my work emails for stronger nouns and verbs — just to solidify the practice. Still, my first drafts are full of there were’s and “was” in genearal. Great tips.

  7. My favorite college professor said the same thing about starting sentences with “there was” and I always think about her when I find myself writing those words. After reading this great post, I will probably think about your “rain pelted” words when I write about the weather. 🙂 Thanks for keeping writers on our toes! Cheers

  8. Hm, I agree with you that strong verbs are important. But just to play devil’s advocate perhaps, aren’t there times when “bare” language can emphasise something in its own way?

    For instance, in a line like: “Down the corridor there was a peal of childish laughter”.

    Just out of interest, how would you rewrite that?

    Thanks for sharing your tips.

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