Wednesday, September 26, 2012
The Rules of Writing-Parts of Speech-Noun 3
Published: September 19, 2012

For writers, what’s in a noun?

To write details, the writer needs specific nouns that create an image. To give an example, the generic noun “dog” gives us an idea of an animal with four legs and a tail, which is often wagging when happy. But the specific noun “Dachshund” draws a particular image into the reader’s mind. If Yvonne hears noises downstairs and she’s alone in the house but for her fearless Dachshund, the reader will smile and form a picture of the sausage-shaped animal running on his short legs to yelp at the intruder. The reader’s mental image would be different had the writer named Yvonne’s dog a Rottweiler. Good writing needs specific nouns and few, if any, generic ones.

The noun “bird” conjures images of something with wings and feathers. The noun “cardinal” paints a picture of a bright red bird with its distinctive crest of feathers giving a triangular profile.

Strong nouns give readers more information. Writers should seek specific nouns to season their prose. Naturally, a specific noun should be familiar to the reader, otherwise it will require description. If the canoe you’re using in a scene is a “pipante,” you shouldn’t assume the readers are conversant with the craft of Honduran natives.

Often, writers rely on adjectives to buttress nouns. This is lazy writing. Earlier on, we read about a teenager with a bad case of acne. The writer described “a large spot on her nose.” “Large” in this context is an adjective conjured to strengthen a weak noun. Replacing “spot” with pustule, carbuncle, boil, cyst, or abscess would have made most readers cringe.

Abstract nouns present a different set of problems. Concepts like “beauty” or “justice” don’t provide the reader with much information and usually harbor the writer’s idea of what those words mean. This can be dangerous in careless hands. A thunderstorm may have beauty, but not for those whose home has been demolished by lightning. Our understanding of beauty or justice may have nothing to do with the reader’s; he can’t see, touch, or hear beauty or justice but may relate to concrete examples of such.

Purists maintain that true synonyms are rare, and we concur. Object, device, contraption, and artifact are not synonymous, each noun carrying a particular nuance.

The man checked his parachute and jumped.

Doesn’t carry the punch of:

The pilot checked his parachute and jumped.

In particular if the scene takes place in a passenger aircraft. And, by the same token, there’s a difference between the “aircraft” being a Cessna or a Boeing 747. (We can take the analogy further if we consider that a 747 requires two pilots and a Cessna only one).

In a nutshell:

A. Choose your nouns with care.

B. Strive for common nouns conveying extra information.

C. Beware of abstract nouns and illustrate their specific meaning or degree.

D. Substitute whenever possible adjective + noun constructions with a single, stronger, noun.

Writer’s CompanionRenee Miller & Carlos Cortes

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