Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When Your Verbs Say "Neener"

My favorite part of writing is the first draft because I love finding the story—having the characters take me on their adventure. But editing has its own joys because you get to clean up the story so that it’s ready for other people to enjoy it.

In the past, I’ve compared writing first drafts with riding a roller coaster with a blindfold on. But editing can be that way too. When I approach a new section, I have an idea of what needs to be done. Some sections need a lot of work. And other sections need only a spit-shine. But here’s the odd thing, sometimes the spit shine takes twice as long as the sections that need to be completely redone.

I can’t help wonder, “Is it me?” Was my brain functioning better on the rewrite day? Was I too easily distracted on my spit-shine section? You’d think that fixing a word or adding a beat (usually a physical action that breaks up a section of dialogue and grounds the reader in the text) should be easy. But sometimes…you stare at the verb. (Usually for me it’s the verbs that are difficult.) The verb stares back, waiting for me to blink. And when I do, it sticks out its tongue and says, “Neener.”

So I ponder my options for dealing with a weak verb. Throwing a modifier in would be easy and, probably, wrong. Adverbs usually weaken verbs. So, my first line of defense is a good thesaurus. Not because I’m looking for a synonym (also usually a weak way out), but because I’m looking for a new way to think about an action. For example, let’s say I have the phrase “he sighed.” An occasional use of “sigh” is fine. But “sighs” often become crutches—the literary equivalent of the verbal “um” or “uh”—a way of getting from one place to another. They’re okay in first drafts, but you can’t dump them on your readers.  If you check “sigh” in a thesaurus, you’ll get “groan, “lament,” “exhale,” etc. That’s where I usually start. I ask myself which one of these synonyms expresses what my character is feeling. Is he tired, discouraged, weary, etc.? Then, I figure out a different physical way of showing the same emotion or state of being. If he were physically tired, his eyelids could be half closed. If he’s discouraged, his shoulders could slump forward or his voice could sound old. Or I could add a simile or a metaphor to the verb—he inhaled as if he’d rather not.

Finding “the perfect word” is why editing takes so long. As I wrote this blog post, writing the alternatives for “sighed” took me twice as long as writing the rest of the post. *I sigh in retrospect.*  J Even now, I really don’t like the alternatives I came up with. And if this blog post weren’t already overdue, I’d stare at the verb alternatives for at least another twenty minutes.

I sure hope the next editing section needs a lot of rewriting…  

Free Tongue Out Smiley
This is my verb sticking out its tongue. Courtesy of Free Clip Art. http://free.clipartof.com/details/45-Free-Tongue-Out-Smiley


  1. As a perfectionist, I always have a ton of fun revising and spit-shining. Although I worry that when I'm ready for that phase, time will slip away from me, as it seems to be from you. With writing you can always measure progress by word count, but with editing it's not so easy. How can you know whether you're making good use of your time?

  2. I'm still in the first draft process but I've bookmarked this post and will be using it's inspiration when it comes time to tackle my verbs. I'm weakest when it comes to verbs/adverbs. Thanks so much for sharing!!

    Happy writing! -Megan @ Writing One Word at a Time

  3. Agreed! Searching for a powerful verb can be troublesome at times, but having a thesaurus helps.

  4. So true. I have a love/hate relationship with editing. I love the way it cleans up my story, but I hate that it takes so long, and is never really "done"... there's ALWAYS more I could edit, but at some point, I have to let go and move on. That's the hard part for me, knowing that I will always have stuff I could "tweak," but needing to move on to the next project.

    Thanks for all your comments, by the way. :) Just found your blog (I'm slow...) :) and am enjoying reading some of your older posts.