“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
I love middle school students, particularly 8th graders. They routinely dazzle their teachers with energetic creativity. But 8th grade girls can also be the worst at writing original stories, because often their ideas are not original in any way. Desiring to be profound, they produce epics of love and war and danger and loss and grief and heroism – and I’ve heard all of it before. Every year, new sets of girls turn in the same sort of literary pathos, changing only the settings of time and place.
(Funny how some things never change. My middle school notebooks overflowed with the exact same dreamy-eyed, loving, suffering, heroic romanticism.)
A trademark of middle school story characterization is excessive use of modifiers. Not only do students gush descriptors when introducing protagonists and antagonists, but they also depend heavily on adjectives and adverbs when describing action.
Trade in Descriptors for Strong Verbs
One of my goals for writing students is to break their dependency upon adjectives and adverbs. These modifiers serve an important function in writing, but excessive use will bog down a story’s pace and distract a reader’s concentration.
Imagery is essential in creative writing, but building effective images does not rest entirely on descriptors. One strong verb can infuse more energy into a line than several predictable adverbs or adjectives.
Consider these examples:
Instead of He spoke angrily, try He barked.
Instead of She walked flirtatiously from the room, try She flounced from the room.
Instead of The child said coaxingly, try The child wheedled or cajoled.
Instead of Mom worked hard, try Mom toiled or Mom labored.
Instead of My sister said teasingly, try My sister teased.
Can you feel the different level of energy from the first example to the second in each of these simple lines? The strong verbs themselves create a sharper picture of movement or activity than the weaker, adverb-enhanced ones.
How can a writer determine if a verb is strong? Begin by assessing the mental picture it evokes. Take a minute to think about the word walk. What kind of image does it create in your mind? How does the image change if we switch the word to swagger? Stagger? Strut? Stroll? Stomp? Tiptoe? Hike? March? Prowl? Traipse? Isn’t it amazing how a single word has the power to change the way a reader interacts with a text!
Why don’t you take a turn now. See how you can sharpen the imagery in these sentences by substituting strong verbs for the weaker verb/descriptor combinations:
1. The jilted girl cried loudly.
2. The puppy played happily.
3. After being passed up for promotion, the woman sat sadly at her desk for the rest of the day.
4. The striking workers gladly received news of a new contract agreement.
5. The child danced joyfully.
6. I could barely manage to sit still until the meeting ended.
7. The teacher was very upset with the uncooperative student.
8. He drove too fast down the highway.
9. The children nervously walked past the abandoned house.
10. The miser greedily counted his money.
I’d like to see what you do with these sample sentences. If you have time, share a couple with me in the Comments section or on my Vivian Coleman Conrad Facebook page. Have fun!
Wow, I love your excellent writing tips, it reminds me of my grammar teacher when I was thirteen. I always remember what she told the class: “make sure that you pay close attention to my classes because what I will teach you will be of excellent and high standard.” She was in her last year of teaching before her retirement and she knew that the newer teachers coming into the school were not from her generation of teachers. She told us to make the most of this opportunity as we were unlikely to experience this again. How true she was “bless her cotton socks”
One of my favourite authors that I read to the children is Roald Dahl. His books are an excellent example of how he describes in such detail that you can picture the scene in your mind as if you are actually there with him, priceless!
Love your observations, Machele! Your teacher sounds a lot like the woman who taught my 7th and 8th grade English in jr. high. Thanks for your encouraging words.