Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.
The Choosing Your Words Assignment
There are a few writing–I hesitate to use the word ‘rules’ when it comes to creative work, so let’s go with ‘suggestions’–that changed the way I write forever once I learned, internalized, and mastered them.
Maybe the biggest one was understanding how to use strong verbs. In particular, once I understood that using the combination of to be (or a thought verb) + a verb was weaker than just using the verb itself, it changed everything.
Let me give you an example.
John was watching Mary eating lunch.
A stronger way to write that sentence:
John watched Mary eat lunch.
The biggest problem with this sentence is that falls on the wrong side of the show versus tell line. It also doesn’t tell us much of anything, except that John is noticing Mary. Let’s go a little deeper.
John watched Mary eat lunch and could remember a time when she always ate lunch with him.
It seems pretty strong right? But still tell-y and the word ‘could’ is distancing. And it’s unnecessary. Let me show you.
Instead of telling your reader that John watched Mary, let the reader watch her, too. In other words, instead of telling us that John watched Mary, show us what he sees.
Mary ate with her attention on her friends instead of on her food. John remembered a time when she always ate lunch with him.
If John is remembering that time, then of course he ‘could’ remember it. He is remembering it. Removing the ‘could’ making the sentence stronger, more concise, and more pointed. If we go one step further, we can unpack why John is notcing who Mary is eating with.
Mary ate with her attention on her friends instead of on her food. John watched her to avoid looking at the empty seat next to him. She never ate lunch with him anymore.
Now you’re removing the thought verb all together and unpacking the sentence a little. John isn’t just remembering eating with Mary. He’s hurt by her absence and he doesn’t like being faced with the evidence of it.
In these two little sentences, we learn something about how John handles disappointment and what he feels for Mary.
Can you see how each iteration becomes more complex and stronger?
Here’s your assignment for this weekend: print out the first scene (or the first chapter, if you’re feeling ambitious) of your book and use a highlighter to mark every instance of weak verbs.
Look for every time you use a to be verb. Sometimes, of course, you’re going to need them, but lots of times they flag a weak verb.
Look for distancing verbs like could or would. Stronger writing means comitting to a verb!
Look for -ing verbs. They can almost always be made stronger by using a straight past tense. (Was eating vs. ate in our example.)
And, a little more tricky, look for places when you use perfectly strong verbs, but where you could do even better by unpacking the sentence a little bit.
Then, go in and do the work on your manuscript. Make every place you marked a little stronger.
When you’re editing your whole first draft, using the ‘find’ tool to look for every instance of -ing and changing it to a straight past tense verb will help cure you of using that format forever. Trust me on that one.
Here’s some proof that I have to work on this all the time. All. The. Time.
This is an excerpt from my example two weeks ago:
“My father fed that kid,” Rob said, turning his face back toward the view of The Strip. “That was his legacy.”
“You don’t need to worry about these things.” Philip hesitated, looking at Robin for an uncomfortably long moment, then nodding as if he’d come to some decision. “In fact, you don’t have to worry about The Nott at all.”
Can you spot the weak verbs?
So, let’s fix it.
“My father fed that kid.” Rob turned back toward the view of The Strip. “That was his legacy.”
“You don’t need to worry about these things.” Philip looked at Robin for an uncomfortably long moment, then nodded as if he’d come to some decision. “In fact, you don’t have to worry about The Nott at all.”
Small changes, but they tighten up my prose. The change in the second paragraph also eliminates a place where I’ve repeated myself unnecessarily. Just showing the hesitation is way stronger than telling the reader that it happens and then describing it.
Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!
Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.
Print out your excerpt and get to work. Don’t be afraid to play around with your prose and see what works best. This exercise is about strong verbs, but also being a concise, tight writer.
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