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Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Secret to Descriptive Writing

Either I’ve encountered a conspiracy to confound teachers of writing, or I’ve discovered an “obvious secret” of descriptive writing. It appears that verbs are, indeed, “what’s happening.”

I heard about the power of compelling verbs first from Ralph Fletcher in his recent visit to the Garden State. He explained that well-intentioned teachers encourage their students to use numerous adjectives to create interesting prose, which leads to detail-saturated writing which drags under its own weight. Simply unnecessary. In Ralph’s own words, “Nouns make the pictures, verbs make the pictures move.”

Flash forward to the New York State Reading Association’s Annual Conference held this past week in Saratoga Springs, New York (one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended). During the Author’s Progressive Dinner I had the pleasure of sitting with Steven Swinburne, creator of several wonderful nonfiction picture books including Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes: Patterns in Nature and Turtle Tide: The Ways Of Sea Turtles. As he spoke with his guests about the creative process, he mentioned the importance of verb selection. When I asked why he had mentioned verbs rather than any other part of speech, he quickly replied, “The correct verbs are essential. Verbs are the motor which drives the sentence.” Now I’m thinking that I’m on to something.

The following day I enjoyed a conversation with Steven Krasner, author of Play Ball Like the Hall Of Famers: The Inside Scoop From 19 Baseball Greats and Play Ball Like the Pros: Tips for Kids from 20 Big League Stars. Through his Nudging the Imagination workshop, Steve explained, he creates stories with students on-the-spot in order to model the writing process. “A huge key,” he explained, “is helping them to find the verbs to really move the story.” Opening one of his picture books, he pointed out he crafted the precise, vivid verbs of the final draft during the revision process, replacing common verbs which served only as place holders in the early stages.

If three very different writers can agree on the importance of verb choice, then I think there are some lessons to be learned by teachers of young writers:

  • Encourage students to examine verb choice in novels, poems, and informational texts. I have even rewritten text selections using “common verbs” which students were then challenged to replace with more precise or colorful verbs.

  • Have students consider verb choices in their own writing, and work to find action words that are more exact.

  • Teach children how to use a print thesaurus or online reference source (such as the Merriam Webster dictionary) for assistance in locating more exact expressions.


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