Empower Your Writing with these Simple Tricks

Empower Your Writing with these Simple Tricks

Since I started these editing guides, we’ve covered a lot. We started with the basics of grammar and punctuation. We also spent some time on passive voice, character perspective, and how to enhance character voice.

Of course, none of this advice can replace having an editor or betas to help pinpoint your mistakes, but the idea is to give writers useful tools to add to their arsenal. And as I originally stated, to help people better identify useful, qualified editors by giving them useful feedback to look for.

Today I want to cover something slightly more advanced. Applying these techniques will help push your writing to the next level.

Use Powerful Verbs

During my post on passive voice, I demonstrated that active verbs are usually clearer and more powerful than passive verbs. I used the sentence Arimand bit his tongue against a retort as an example. In passive voice this sentence would read The tongue was bitten by Arimand to resist an angry retort.

I once read an article – and I wish I could remember where it was – that talked about the fact that writing is the act of verbing. Everything in writing is action. From the actions your characters are taking, to the act of desiring something, to the building of tension through anticipation of the next major act in the story. And actions are verbs. This article claimed – and it’s true – that your characters should always be verbing. Or, in other words, your characters should always be acting.

Verbs are powerful. They’re the force that moves most sentences. For example, we could change the meaning of our sample sentence by changing the verb. Arimand nibbled the tip of his tongue to resist an angry retort is quite different from the image of a single sharp bite. The image would be different still if Arimand clicked his tongue (generally considered an act of reprimand).

Because verbs have the power to shape our understanding of what’s happening, we want to make sure we’re using the most powerful verb possible. How do we do that?

Look at the context. In the above example, there are no adverbs or helper verbs in sight. Bite is doing all the work – and that’s good. It quickly and clearly conveys the image I’m going for.

Eliminate Helper Verbs

Here’s another example I used in my passive voice post: Dinner the night before had been hastily consumed amidst battle plans and troop markers. In this case, I’m using a dreaded adverb to help shape the image my verb conveys. If I wanted to use a more powerful verb, I might change this to: Dinner the night before had been inhaled amidst battle plans… Why? Because the verb inhaled quickly and clearly does the work of hastily consumed in half the words. Which makes it stronger.

When we’re writing, especially first drafts, we tend to stick with the word that comes most quickly into our head. That’s good, because the idea of a first draft is just to get the whole story out of your head and onto paper. But it leaves you with a lot of what I like to call ‘helper verbs’ scattered throughout your work. I’m talking about when your characters reach out a hand, figure out a problem or do something like slap at or scratch at an object.

Often, these little helper verbs feel necessary when you first look at a sentence. But like other filler words, they’re just getting in the way. In some cases verbs like slap or scratch can stand alone; they don’t need help. In other cases, it might be better to look for a more succinct and powerful verb. Reach out could be replaced with extend, for example. And figure out might work better as determine or deduce, depending on the situation.

As a general guideline, examine any time you’re using two or more words to convey an action. Ask yourself if you could better convey that action in a single word. If the answer is yes – change it!

Check Your Word Economy

There are exceptions to every rule. You might want to use a phrase like hastily consumed instead of inhale for several reasons. In this case, the concept of inhaling food seems too modern for a medieval setting. So I chose to leave the adverb. You might also need to indicate directions sometimes. Such as when a character glances up or looks right. So use your judgment; if it feels wrong to change something, leave it.

All of this fiddling leads to something I like to call word economy. Nine times out of ten, the way to make a sentence powerful is to use as few words to convey your concept as possible. Lots of writers have lists of filler words. That is a big one to look for. About 80% of the time, you don’t need to include that in a sentence – you can usually tell by taking the word out and seeing if the sentence still makes sense. This is why people suggest deleting words like very before reading over your work to see if you miss them. There are even several helpful charts for words that convey the various concepts very helps to conjure.

I simply like to apply this principle to every sentence in my story. Making sure you’re using strong verbs is a way to tighten your prose and bleed your work of excess words.

That said, it’s possible to take this concept too far. You don’t want your prose to sound clipped and brief all the time. And there are times you might want to ignore wordy phrasing. Dialogue is a good example; ignore all this advice if that’s how your character speaks.

As a general rule, if eliminating an adverb or passive phrasing will make the sentence longer and more complicated, don’t bother.

Apply Ending Emphasis

There’s one more reason you might want to ignore word economy – to emphasize a specific aspect of the sentence. I first learned about ending emphasis from a delightful tumblr article. The long and short is that the last word in a sentence has more power than all the rest because it sticks in the reader’s head. Thus, in order to give your sentences more power, make sure they end with a particularly poignant word.

A quick and easy example is: The cat bit me. When written this way, the emphasis is on me, the person bitten. But if I said: I was bitten by the cat, the emphasis would be on the cat, the one who did the biting. This is actually one of the reasons to use passive phrase; it allows you to shift the emphasis to the object being acted upon, rather than the person carrying out the action.

What makes ending emphasis versatile is that you don’t have to put the emphasis on a verb. You can choose any word to gain that power, so long as it makes grammatical sense.

In the sentence Arimand bit his tongue against an angry retort, the emphasis is on his unspoken anger. If I wanted to emphasize the action, I could simply cut the sentence at the word tongue. In the sentence Dinner the night before had been hastily consumed amidst battle plans and troop markers, the emphasis falls on the troop markers and, thus, the battle plans. If I wanted to emphasize the haste instead, I could simply cut the sentence at consumed.

Ending emphasis doesn’t just apply to the end of sentences; it also applies to the end of phrases. So if you’ve got a prepositional phrase or commathetical in the middle of your sentence, pay attention to the word just before the comma to give your sentence an extra kick.

Now, you might think, in an ideal world, all sentences would end with powerful words. But that’s not how language works either. If ending a sentence with a powerful word is awkward and ending it with a weaker word makes more sense, lean toward the latter option. You never want word or structure choices to mess with your flow – but that’s a topic for later!

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