Choosing Concrete Words

Previous Page

Avoiding Deadwood Nouns :

Choosing concrete words is an art by itself. Avoid using what we (the authors) call deadwood nouns whenever you can. That’s our term for nominalizations, nouns created by tracking endings onto adjectives and verbs.

Here are some typical examples:

• Capability
• Cognizance
• Competitiveness
• Viability
• Enhancement
• Marketability
• Immediacy
• Modernity
• Accountability
• Inclusiveness
• Utilization
• Continuation

When you edit, keep an eye out for such words, those that the in –ity, -tion, -ness, -ance, -ment, and -ism and get rid of most of them. Some times they’re absolutely necessary of course, but not as often as you think. These clunky words have no life, no zip. They’re flabby words and used too often, they’ll make your writing dull and hard to read.

Choosing Strong Verbs for Clarity :

Verbs are the lifeblood of writing. Because they affect not only clarity but also the tone and rhythm of what you write, it’s worth giving them special attention. Notice, how choosing strong verbs can improve a sentence:

Original : In March most movie directors are thinking about the Oscar awards.

Revision : In March the Oscar awards dominate movies directors’ thoughts.

Using BE verbs sparingly :

Although we all have to use the BE verbs at times – is, was, have been, will be - they’re often weak and can easily get overwhelmed by other words. Notice how much easier it is to understand the second sentence below:

Original : The invention of barbed wire in the 1870s was a major factor in bringing about change in cattle rising.

Revision : Barbed wire, invented in the 1870s radically changed how cattle were raised.

In the original version, the verb was gets buried by abstract phrases on both sides.

In the revision, the verbs changed and were raised enliven the sentence

In this paragraph, notice how Gordon Parks chooses active verbs (italicized here) to create a compelling image of the fabled jazz musician Duke Ellington.

For me and many other black people then, his importance as a human being transcended his importance as a musician. We had been assaulted by Hollywood grinning darkly types all of our lives. It was refreshing to be a part of Duke Ellington’s audience. Ellington never grinned. He smiled. Ellington never shuffled. He strode. It was “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” never “How y’all doin?” We wanted to be seen by whites in the audience. We wanted them to know that this elegant, handsome and awe–inspiring man playing that ever – so – fine music on that golden stage before that big beautiful black band was black – like us. (Gordon Parks : Jazz)

Sometimes your writing needs only to be clear, not colorful or striking. But when you want to make your writing strong and interesting to read, choose verbs that do something.

Choosing Short Direct Verbs :

When you can, substitute simple one – word verbs for strung-out verb phrases.

For Example :

Why write... : When you could write …..

Be cognizant of : recognize

Put the emphasis on : emphasize

Is reflective of : reflects

Make an attempt to : try

Have an understanding of : understand

Make a comparison : compare

Grant permission : allow

The longer verb phrases, although not wrong, tend to slow down writing and make it clumsy.

Choosing Active Verbs Most of the Time :

When you want your writing to be clear and direct, choose active verbs that immediately let your reader know who is doing what and to whom.

For Example :

From childhood, Artemisia breathed the ambience of the artist’s workshop and absorbed the traditions of the heroic school of painting.

You need passive verbs when you don’t know who or what did something or when you would rather not call attention to the person who acted.

For example, they’re necessary in these sentences:

No woman had ever been admitted to the academy before.

Many of Gentileschi’s paintings have been lost.

But avoid a passive verb that conceal who’s responsible for doing something.

For Example :

One of Gentileschi’s paintings of Judith killing hallowedness was regarded by some critics as obscene.

Better to put it like this when you know who’s doing what:

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin regarded Gentileschi’s painting of Judith killing Holofernes as obscene.

Using Adjectives and Adverbs Sparingly :

Your writing will be livelier and clearer if you choose nouns and verbs to carry your meaning instead of relying too much on adjectives and adverbs.

Keep these hints in mind:

• Get rid of unnecessary doubling such as common courtesy, fundamental difference, final destination, absolutely essential and consensus of opinion.

• Edit out extravagant adjectives such as marvelous, terrific, fabulous and fantastic and use sparingly those overworked modifiers really, very and definitely.

• Don’t overstate your case. Qualify a claim you couldn’t prove by using provisional terms such as probably, for the most part, on the whole or in general.

Other Pages in This Section :

  • Illustrating General Statements with Specific Examples

  • Making Your Readers See Something

  • Putting People in Your Writing

  • Adding Metaphors for Clarity

  • Successful Writing Index

    From Choosing Concrete Words to HOME PAGE