We’ve heard the saying before: a strong voice is a must. But a common problem writers complain about is that their writing is dry and boring.
Many factors play a role in voice, but there are two that have the most impact. One is word choice, the other sentence structure. Yes, other issues can hurt voice (redundancies, handholding, telling and not showing, lack of conflict, too many unnecessary descriptions, undeveloped characters, boring subject matter, etc.), though usually, word choice and sentence structure are the big two on a line editing level.
Boring, dry (usually formulaic) writing arises when the writer uses too many vague, general words and doesn’t vary her sentences. Vague words in general (see what I did there?) don’t engage the reader, and unvaried sentences causes the writing to become predictable. And predictable writing is, well, boring. I already have a post about varied sentence structure, so this post will focus on word choice.
What Are Vague, General Words?
Vague words are weak words that lack a solid definition. They either have definitions that mention the lack of specificity or contain many definition entries that vary in meaning (slang not included). Strong words have one or two (three at the most) solid definitions that are similar to each other.
Examples with their definitions:
A.) Thing (I’m going to go buy some healthy things)
1 an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to
2 an inanimate material object as distinct from a living sentient being
3 an action, activity, event, thought, or utterance
B.) Apple (I’m going to go buy some apples)
1 the round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin red or green skin and crisp flesh. Many varieties have been developed as dessert or cooking fruit or for making cider.
C.) Do (I did terribly on my exam)
1 [ trans. ] perform (an action, the precise nature of which is often unspecified)
2 [ trans. ] achieve or complete, in particular
3 [ intrans. ] act or behave in a specified way
4 [ intrans. ] be suitable or acceptable
5 [ trans. ] informal beat up; kill
D.) Fail (I failed my exam)
1 be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal
2 neglect to do something : [with infinitive ]
3 break down; cease to work well
The problem with these general words is that anybody can use them. A strong voice consists of strong, specific words that reflect the writer. Your voice should reflect you, not the general public.
Nouns and Verbs:
Your strongest words are your nouns and verbs, but when paragraph after paragraph is filled with weak nouns and verbs, the writing dries up like a dead plant. Do a Google search, and you’ll find plenty of websites that list vague words (even I have a top 5 vague words list).
Verbs tend to give writers more trouble than nouns. Normally, action verbs are more engaging words than linking verbs. Countless authors and editors will tell you to avoid the ‘to be’ verbs and filter words. Having linking verbs in your writing itself is not a bad thing; there are times to use them. A problem occurs when page after page contains more linking verbs than action.
Here are two examples. One is filled with linking verbs, the other action. Compare the two, and you’ll see how the action verbs give the writing more life.
Example with “to be” verbs:
It was morning when Jolene stepped into the forest. The sunlight and thick branches were above her, and wildflowers were by the trunks of the trees. There were many critters on the dirt road. This place was Jolene’s favorite spot whenever she wanted time alone.
Example with action verbs:
At morning, Jolene stepped into the forest. Sunlight shone down on thick branches, and wildflowers grew near the trunks of the trees. Critters scampered along the dirt road. Whenever Jolene wanted time alone, she came here.
Adjectives and Adverbs:
A sign of weak writing is when there are too many adjectives and adverbs. You may have heard to avoid using these words before from other authors and editors. While adjectives and adverbs are not bad themselves, the problem is when the writer uses weak nouns and verbs and tries to spice them up by adding adjectives and adverbs. Pretty adjectives and adverbs are not going to hide the fact that the nouns and verbs are weak.
Most nouns and verbs are strong enough words that they don’t need adjectives and adverbs, and sometimes adding these words will hurt your voice more than help. A common problem I see is when the adjective is actually redundant to the noun and the adverb is redundant to the verb.
Examples: big mountain, blue sea, soft whispers, loud shouting, pink flamingos, running quickly, whispering quietly, laughing happily, stomping nosily
Another problem with adjectives, many of them are subjective. What is nice, pretty, beautiful, ugly, tasty, etc. to you is not the same for another. And because they are subjective, they become vague and boring to the reader.
Example: What is a cute dog?
(Answer: both of them)
The more specific and precise you are, the more vivid your writing will be. And to prove my point more, here are some more examples:
Vague: The weather is nice.
Specific: A breeze blows by.
Even more specific: A breeze brushes back my hair.
Real Life Examples
The following examples come from published books. I wrote the “vague” version so you can compare it to the real one, which is in the quote box. Compare the nouns and verbs. Compare the sentence structure. See how these authors use specific words and vary sentences to give their writing life.
“The ghost went forward. It had long black hair and only one eye. Disgusting, old skin was tightly and firmly holding onto the yellowish bone of the cheeks. The lower jaw was swinging loosely at a weird angle above the collar. The body was rigid. The arms weren’t moving around. Every now and then the figure shook slightly.”
“The ghost drifted steadily forward […] Long black hair flapped around the skull. Remnants of one eye showed in the left-hand orbit, but the other was a void. Curls of rotting skin clung to spars of bone of the cheeks, and the lower jaw dangled at a rakish angle above the collar. The body was rigid, the arms clamped to the sides as if tied there. […] every now and then the figure quivered, as if still dangled on the gibbet, buffeted by wind and rain.”
“Lockwood and Co: The Whispering Skull”, Chapter 1, Jonathan Stroud
“When they went near the cave’s entrance, Catarina took Luce’s hand, and they went up to the surface. A few enormous stars were brightly radiant in a small space in the clouds, and their lights were visible on the very jet black water. Caterina was so close to Luce, and because of that, Luce felt overwhelmed.”
“When they came near the cave’s entrance, Catarina caught Luce’s hand and guided her to the surface. They floated upright facing each other in a spot where the shore bent close around them. A few enormous stars flared through a gash in the clouds, and their light leaped in white sparks on the jet black water. Catarina’s gray eyes were so close to Luce’s that she felt like she was falling into a twisting, gleaning pool.”
“Lost Voices”, Chapter 5, Sarah Porter
“Ribbons drove the Dodge so fast that he hit a row of cars behind him, and sparks went up into the air. Because of his mask and the blood, Ribbons couldn’t see as his car rolled quickly toward the garage entrance, so he accidentally crashed through the ticket machine, which was empty. He then entered Pacific Avenue.”
“Ribbons burned rubber. The Dodge peeled out so quickly it slammed into the row of cars behind it and sent up a shower of sparks. Half blind from the mask and the blood, Ribbons shifted into Drive and barreled down the slope toward the garage entrance. There was no attendant in the booth this early, which was good because Ribbons couldn’t see where he was going. The beat-up Dodge crashed through the ticket machine, swiped the booth, and fishtailed onto Pacific Avenue.”
“Ghostman”, Prologue, Roger Hobbs
What’s The Best Way for Me to Improve My Voice?
I don’t have any new, groundbreaking advice that differs from any other writing blog. Want to improve your voice? Read and write. A lot.
Read so you can see how other authors string their sentences together. See what words these authors are choosing. You’ll build your vocabulary and find new words that you’ll love to use. Writing is a process of choices, so you have to know what your (word) choices are before you can use them. And reading is fun! Why would you not read?
Write a lot because, obviously, you’re a writer. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it.
If you’re a writer with a dry voice, ask yourself these questions as you read your writing:
-Am I using the best, solid word?
-Am I using the best noun?
-Do I have more action verbs than linking verbs?
-Am I using too many adjectives and adverbs? Do my nouns and verbs need these adjectives and adverbs?
-Am I varying my sentences?