Strong Words

This is a guest post by my friend and fellow writer, Sylvie Kurtz. She’s a published author and a writing teacher. Enjoy!

One of the top ten beginning students’ mistakes I see is the use of weak words to get a story across. I’m not sure if it comes from the advice I often hear from teachers to write as if you were telling the story to your best friend.

So let’s say you’re out jogging and you see a man and a dog. You saw them with your eyes, so you have a clear picture in your mind of the man and the dog. When you sit across the kitchen table and tell your friend about what you saw, the conversation might go something like this:

“I saw this guy walking with this dog and—”

“What did the guy look like?” the friend asks.

“Like a thug.”

“What kind of dog?”

“You know, one of those mean ones. A Rottweiler.”

So you fill in the sketch in her mind and soon her mind picture might look similar to yours.

The problem is that a reader can’t knock on your door and say, “Hey, by the way, what kind of dog was it?”

When you write, all the reader can see in her mind is what’s on the page. Yes, given enough details, the brain will fill in the scene, but you have to give enough seed impressions to start that concrete and specific picture building.

Let’s take that man walking that dog again and create a more vibrant sentence.

He walked with his dog. Nothing wrong with this sentence. Nothing wrong with walk. It’s an active verb. He and dog are kind of blurry though. I’m not seeing anything but silhouettes.

You’re missing three chances to create a more vivid mind picture for your reader.

He strolled along the sidewalk with a Jack Russell terrier ahead of him, tugging at the leash. Here you get the sense of someone not being in a hurry and a small dog full of energy. So now the dog and the manner of walking are clearer, but he’s still gray.

The man’s spine curbed with age and his plodding gait matched that of the golden retriever at his side. The pace here is slower and both the man and the dog give a different emotional impression.

A guy his age should’ve been working at some nine-to-five job, not striding the quiet streets of the suburbs at ten in the morning wearing a hoodie and fighting the pitbull, prancing and growling at his side. This creates a completely different picture, one that might raise suspicion.

The writer’s foremost tool is the words he uses to generate pictures that will allow the reader to experience the scene. That experience strikes an emotional cord in the reader and that emotion is the unconscious reason why a reader reads.

What do you want your reader to feel as she reads your scene? What concrete and specific words can pop up an image that’s colorful enough to give her that feeling?

Strong words cause strong pictures to fire into the brain and those strong images create emotions. It’s like taking a reader’s hand and saying, “Come along with me. I’ll give you a ride you’ll remember.”

Sylvie_KurtzSylvie Kurtz ( writes adventures that explore the complexityof the human mind and the thrill of suspense. She likes dark chocolate, soft wool, and sappy movies.

23 thoughts on “Strong Words

  1. I often start off writing weak. Every time I look re-read my first draft after timely separation I cringe. It’s always crap. Then I have to rip it to shreds and use stronger words to flesh it out, usually through multiple revisions. Wish I could say I was more adept at using stronger words right out of the chute, but that first time around – ugh! – I groan. I usually sound like an idiot. (But at least I have the idea down on paper.)
    Like the analogy of talking to your best friend! Good advice for beginners!

    • Laura–First drafts are supposed to be shitty. It’s through the revision process that we strengthen, enhance, and polish the prose to its best. That first draft is simply a release .

  2. Dianne, thanks for sharing Sylvie!
    What a simple and clear (dare I say “strong”?) example of using words to make pictures. This is one I can remember and use ~ a man and a dog ~ easy and infinitely changeable.
    To Laura^ : ease up on yourself darling…those first drafts are the only way to make progress. I usually have the opposite experience, I get so chatty when I write (like now) that after my cooling off period, 5 pages easily becomes whittled down to 2.75 And stop shredding them, squirrel them away instead in a pretty box and label it “achievements”
    Kassie aka “Mom”

    • Very good suggestion! This past November because of Nanowrimo I began “saving” my work and the labeling subsequent revisions with an addendum number. (Before I used to throw everything away and then delete.) I printed out a section that I’d already revised three times and although it still isn’t great, I can definitely see the improvement. Less words, stronger words, and definitely a growing sense of achievement that I’m at least moving forward! Excellent point!

  3. Thank you for reminding me, I need to keep this in mind when I’m editing (after I finish my first draft). I’m looking forward to it anyway! 🙂

  4. Great advice! Please though, the “pit bull prancing and growling that raises suspicion” is discriminatory. I know it may seem trivial, however, pit bulls are the subjects of this kind of accidental stereotyping all the time. All it does is convey to others that because the man was walking a pit bull something about him is suspicious. It’s easy to pin a pit bull as a dog that should be approached cautiously but it’s usually not the case. I know this post is about writing and not dogs being unfairly labeled, but the advocate in me couldn’t sit back quietly.

    • I apologize for my insensitivity. I was trying to make a point, but in this world where we have to watch every word to be p.c. and in an article on the power of words, I should have picked a different example. The tuxedo-clad man looked out of place with the pitbull prancing at his side wearing a matching suit and matching smile.

      • Thank you for the apology. I am, admittedly, hypersensitive when it comes to any negative attention pit bulls receive. Intentional or otherwise. I think that as a whole pit bull advocates tend to be a bit overzealous in the defense of our beloved dogs. But sometimes we have to be with cities and countries trying to ban them left and right. My comment and your subsequent reply are probably a good lesson in always being aware of your reader.

  5. There is a time and a place for advocacy. A writing blog is not one of the places to advocate for dogs. An example may be taken out of context from a story, yet be completely appropriate to development of plot/character. Writing is full of negative characters, negative sterotypes, negative opinions. Writing is full of politically incorrect characters, terms, topics, etc.

    I don’t believe Sylvie meant to make this post about an attack on a particular dog breed, but on sentence development.

    We’re here to talk to about writing, not about stereotypes, not about advocating on topics that do not relate to this blog. It seems inappropriate to express hypersensitivity when this guest author took the time to share her expertise to help us develop skills.

    Sorry for my hypersensitivity! But I feel the need to defend authors who are stereotyped by words in stories that have nothing to do with who may be as real people!

  6. Well said, Laura. And Bex, I admire your passion for fairness toward pitbulls, but I did not take Sylvie’s example as a slam against pitbulls. Nor did I think she was slamming Rottweiler’s in her original example.

    And Sylvie, I don’t think you need to edit yourself or be “more PC” in your writing. We are all writers here and we can focus on the craft of writing, even when we use examples that are not agreeable to everyone. That’s life.

    Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments!


  7. This was an interesting article. Indeed descriptions, when done right, allow the reader to experience the scene and it’s characters. Coincidentally, I’ve written an article about descriptive writing on my blog. Would appreciate if I can get some feedback on it, as I’m an aspiring writer as well.

  8. The dog smelled like he had just took a bath in the park sprinkler system and his hair was still matted and dripping. (I just could not resist that challenge). The man smiled and tip his “Retired Navy”, as he passed.

  9. Pingback: Strong Words | Aquí también, "nosotros los pueblos"

  10. Great tips, Silvie. You see, I’ve seen so many sites give tips for creating images in the mind of a reader. Though they call it “showing instead of telling”,but I’ve never seen anyone explain so meticulously how to go about it as you’ve done.
    Thanks a lot, Silvie. You’ve helped a stranger. LOL

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