Cut the Clutter: Nouns and Verbs

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I own hundreds of draft horses. I keep them in my stables. They’re so strong they can do the work of two, three, or even more…adjectives and adverbs. See, my draft horses are concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs, and my stables are my dictionary and thesaurus. They come whenever I ask them to, and they make my sentences stronger, more visual, and more concise. If I choose them wisely, they’ll always pull their weight.

Let’s look at some examples.

SENTENCE: The little dog ran very fast across the street.

First Revision: The Chihuahua ran very fast across the street.

Things to Notice

  • I capitalized Chihuahua. Why? Because Chihuahua is a geographical region in Mexico.  When dog breeds have a geographical region as part of their breed designation, the breed is capitalized. On the other hand, a breed without a geographical region as part of their designation is not capitalized. An example of this would be border collie.
  • The world is full of little dogs, so the adjective little weakens the sentence. I solved thisissue by using a “drafthorse” noun—the concrete noun Chihuahua. Being this specific creates an image in readers’ minds and cuts the sentence down by one word.
  • Chihuahua, then, pulls the adjective’s weight.
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Second Revision: The Chihuahua sprinted across the street.

Things to Notice

  • In the example sentence I used an adverb, very, to modify a general verb, ran.
  • To solve this issue and get rid of that tired old, overused and often unnecessary adverb, I used a strong, dynamic “draft horse” verb—sprinted.

By using strong concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs, then, we can cut the clutter of adjectives and adverbs. But are there times when we need to use these modifiers? Of course, though some writers may disagree. If they can help readers visualize the noun or verb, use them. Just be sure to get rid of those that aren’t needed.  

When to Use Adjectives and Adverbs

A Few Examples

While I drove to Dallas, two black crows flew past my car.

  Here, the adjective isn’t needed because all crows in the United States are black.

  • The black standard poodle darted across the street.

 This adjective is fine because not all standard poodles are black. The adjective helps create a clear image in readers’ minds.

  • She whispered softly to me…

 The adverb softly isn’t needed because all whispers are typically soft.

  • She whispered loudly to me.

 The adverb loudly as used here is fine because whispers are, by definition, soft. So loud isn’t a way people typically whisper. Sometimes, though, people do whisper louder than usual. Thus, the adverb enhances the sound. However, there are also possible synonyms, such as stage whisper or audible whisper. Either of these synonyms would work as well.

When reviewing a manuscript, pay close attention to the adjectives and adverbs. Can they be deleted through the use of stronger nouns and verbs? If you cannot find stronger nouns and verbs to replace them, keep the modifiers. If you can find stronger nouns and verbs to replace them, get rid of the modifiers.  

Cut the Clutter: Introduction

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I’m a surgeon. Not a medical surgeon, but a verbal surgeon. All serious writers should have verbal surgeon beside their names, for just as medical surgeons cut into patients’ bodies, so verbal surgeons dig deep into sentences, cutting out words, adding words, and many other things to make their writing strong and healthy.

One of the cardinal rules of clear, clean writing is “cut the clutter.” This means taking out unnecessary words, redundancies, and similar things that clutter our prose. Once they’re trashed, sentences become clear and easier to read. They’ll be more concise. This is the mark of a professional, after all. A professional writer’s prose isn’t cluttered.

Cluttered writing can be irritating. Many years ago, when I was a young, budding writer taking college-level English classes, one of my professors gave us students handouts to take home. He’d written about authors and literature he wouldn’t have time to cover in class. I’d learned how important it was to write concisely, without clutter, so when I saw his work…Ugh! An English professor, of all people! Oh, I tried reading what he’d written, but I grew so frustrated wading through his verbosity that I tossed his handouts in a waste basket.

So, if we don’t want a frustrated reader to toss our work away…write concisely! Concise writing doesn’t mean lots of short sentences, though many beginning writers have a mistaken notion that it is. Concise writing means making every word count toward clarity. Effective, clear writing is concise and uses various sentence structures and lengths.

More on “cutting the clutter” in the next post.

The Writer’s Warehouse

 

man riding on yellow forklift
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When we look at our manuscript’s pages, imagine them as a verbal warehouse. A literal warehouse uses different machines for lifting different types of products. Neat warehouses, like neat writing, are well-organized. Some machines, such as forklifts, can lift heavier items than other machines, such as hand trucks.

The same is true in our English language. Some parts of speech are forklifts, others hand trucks. Our language also has “pasteboard” boxes, as we shall see.

The Forklifts: Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs

These parts of speech, if well-chosen, do the heaviest lifting in a sentence.
More often than not, hand trucks aren’t needed.

The Hand Trucks: Adjectives and Adverbs

Sometimes, though, these verbal hand trucks are needed. When? When concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs alone can’t create a precise image in readers’ minds.

Pasteboard Boxes: Prepositions and Conjunctions

Every warehouse I’ve ever been in has merchandise in boxes, usually pasteboard boxes. These keep the merchandise clean and well-organized. Similarly, verbal “boxes” are necessary to help our sentences flow smoothly and clearly by keeping them well-organized. But do they pack a lot of weight? Most often, they don’t. But we do need them, and when we use them with “forklifts” and “hand trucks,” they help make our sentences the strongest and clearest they can be. Use them carefully, though. Too many in a sentence can also cause clutter.

Examples

1. The horse ran very fast through the field.
2. The thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field.
3. The brown thoroughbred galloped through the cotton field.

Which of the three sentences is the strongest? The third one, because it creates the most visual image in the reader’s mind.

Sentence 1: 

“horse” and “field” – too general. We don’t know what kind of horse, nor do    we know what kind of field the horse ran through.

 “very fast” – also too general. How fast is “very fast”? More often than not,  “very” isn’t needed, so be on the lookout for this adverb.

“through” – this preposition, though lightweight, is needed for clarity. It shows us the direction the horse is running.   

Sentence 2:

“thoroughbred” – a strong concrete noun. Here, we see a specific breed of  horse.                      

“galloped”  — more specific. We can see how fast the horse is running.

 “cotton field” — more specific/concrete. We can also visualize the field.

Sentence 3:

“brown” – an adjective that’s needed. Because thoroughbreds come in several colors, “brown” helps readers visualize the horse even better.  

Coming next week, an interview with Jodie Wolfe. author of To Claim Her Heart, a novel set during the Oklahoma Land Rush. Be sure to visit the Interview page next week to read it.