Monday, December 19, 2011

The Lens of Strong Nouns & Verbs

My 8th grade creative writing classes are studying the use of strong nouns and verbs, and I asked YA author Mitali Perkins to build our recent author chat on that topic.

A concern I have is that many students assume that using a strong noun or verb simply means extracting a weak one and easily inserting a better one.  Many worksheets seem to be built this way, but that exercise doesn't properly translate to the reality of a writer's experience.

I wanted to avoid treating the topic as if we were about to exercise our steady hand with the board game Operation.

Perkins framed her opening remarks around the concept that a writer shares power with their reader.  Strong verbs, for instance, can change the plot and set the reader free to own the action.  Don't be afraid to let your reader figure things out through your verbs; we don't have to be bossy as a writer and over explain every moment and fill in the space between each breath with backstory.

For instance, a writer can tell a reader how to feel by writing, "Jeff was sad."  The alternative is to use place and strong verbs to feed our reader's imaginations.

When building place in a revision, try to add a lot of strong nouns while capturing as many of the senses as much you can.  Our imagination engages good, strong nouns.  When you are doing a good job writing you are trying to engage all five senses.  Writing is always about that weave of people, place, and plot.

Mitali posed the following example:

As I walked through the hot marketplace, I saw many colorful things.

I wandered through the stuffy alleys, shaking my head as vendors sang the praises of their wares, trying to lure me closer. There were piles of orange and yellow lentils in hanging baskets, narrow bottles of golden oil, copper pots in a range of sizes, and strings of blue rubber sandals. Naked lightbulbs hung from low ceilings, glowing on the faces of the men and women sitting cross-legged in the center of each narrow stall.

By the time I reached the enclosed fruit and vegetable market, sweat was pouring down my back. I sniffed the fresh ripe fruit and fingered piles of glossy zucchini, red tomatoes, green bell peppers, and purple onion.

I like that my students saw and heard that you have to be willing to add, expand, change, stretch, and engage the senses.  The above example allowed me to provide a new lens for my students--write with patience.  Don't extract and replace single words--dig deeper.

The only difference between you and a Mozart is that he took the time to run his fingers up and down the strings, up and down the strings--take your time to run your fingers up and down the strings.

While some students haven't quite understood the concept yet ("What is another word for 'closet?'") the best we can do is provide examples, mentor texts, and mentor experiences such as an author chat if it is available to you.

I found another (more detailed) blog about a similar lesson with Mitali which is worth reading if you are interested in helping your young writers understand the concept of place: Creating the Magic Carpet of Place on the blog Spilling Ink which is designed specifically for the teachers of young writers.

M. F. Hussain - artist

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