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How to Write Fast and Well, Part 7: Get Physical

Last time, I showed you how to improve your writing simply by getting rid of adjectives and adverbs. Instead, I said, use the right nouns and verbs.
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Last time, I showed you how to improve your writing simply by getting rid of adjectives and adverbs. Instead, I said, use the right nouns and verbs.

This time: how to find those nouns and verbs.

Red Apple photo by Abhijit Tembhekar, used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-3.0The key is to remember that we invented nouns and verbs to stand for things and actions that we can see, hear, feel, smell or taste: "I bit into an apple." Later we created abstractions, like "nutrition". But what's most real to us is reality: the crunch and taste of the physical world.

Our emotions, too, are physical. Have you ever felt anger, love or fear in your brain? No, you felt them in your throat, your heart and your gut.

When you write about a physical thing -- an apple -- or a physical action -- biting into the apple -- you engage your readers' senses, and hence their emotions.

In fact, recent brain research has found that when we imagine something, our brains activate almost as if we had had the actual experience. Some of that research was described in a 2012 New York Times article called "Your Brain on Fiction":

When [Spanish-speaking] subjects looked at the Spanish words for "perfume" and "coffee," their primary olfactory cortex lit up....

In [another] study... the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like "John grasped the object" and "Pablo kicked the ball." The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body's movements....

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

On the other hand, if you use non-physical words, your readers' senses and emotions lie dormant.

Compare two ways of describing a whale:

1. I was about to see a really big whale, up close.

This sort of works, because we can imagine an actual whale. But "really big" and "up close" aren't doing much, are they?

Something like this might work better:

2. The smooth surface of the water started to bulge. The boat tipped to one side.

We haven't even mentioned the whale yet, yet it feels more real. That's because we described physical things and actions. We let the reader feel them, instead of telling the reader what to feel about them.

This works even when you're discussing abstract topics.

Compare these:

1. Many American workers are suffering from the effects of wage stagnation.

2. Warehouse supervisor Joe Johnson makes $22,000 a year. His last raise came 10 years ago.

I may think I care about "wage stagnation". But I have the experience of caring about Joe Johnson.

It turns out that much of what makes for good writing happens before a single word is chosen: It involves simply learning to see (or hear, touch, smell or taste) what's actually there.

Here are the previous posts in this series:

Apple photo: Abhijit Tembhekar, used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-3.0