“Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.”
William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well
Descriptive verbs paint a picture
Talk about painting a picture. In City of Bohane, Kevin Barry brings the titular town to life in sentences like this:
“Amputee walnut sellers croaked their prices from tragic blankets on the scarred tile floors …”
“The tottering old chimneys were stacked in great deranged happiness against the morning sky.”
“He had a blackbird’s poppy-eyed stare, thyroidal, and if his brow was no more than an inch deep, it was packed with an alley rat’s cunning.”
Notice what these descriptive passages have in common: They set the scene with nouns and adjectives. When setting a scene, we tend to describe people and things.
But we need to show action, too.
Choose descriptive verbs.
If the verb is the story — and I think it is — then good description means choosing verbs as carefully as you choose nouns.
Light up readers’ brains. After all, we know that when people read strong action verbs like write and throw, their motor cortexes — the part of the brain that coordinates the body’s movements — light up, according to research by cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France.
When they read nouns like mill and cliff, their motor cortexes stay dark. Even more interesting, one part of the motor cortex lights up when people read about arm movements, while a different part does when they read about leg action.
How can you choose verbs that light up your readers’ brains?
Test your copy.
First, find out how hard your verbs are working now:
1. Open your latest story and highlight all the verbs.
2. Scan the highlighted words. Ask, are these verbs:
- Sensual? Can you see, hear, feel, taste or smell them?
- Precise? Hobbled says something that meandered does not. But what picture does walked slowly paint?
- Distinctive? Avoid typical PR verbs like launches, announces and introduces. Instead, go for verbs that describe what your readers will be able to do differently after your launch.
- Active? Activate the passive voice.
- Strong? To be verbs are not to be.
- Short? When it comes to verbs, one syllable is best, two are OK and three are a little long. So choose one-syllable verbs whenever possible.
3. Rewrite your verbs. Finally, use Visual Thesaurus to come up with just the right substitute for your weak verbs.
Model the masters.
Now that you’ve checked out your own copy, find writers whose verbs inspire you. Highlight your favorite passages on your e-reader and review them when your writing feels a little wan.
Among my favorite verb masters:
Jeffrey Eugenides. In The Marriage Plot, he writes:
“A ficus tree endured in the corner.”
Karen Russell. In Swamplandia!, she writes:
“Ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water.”
Markus Zusak. In The Book Thief, he writes:
“Farther down, the church aimed itself at the sky,
its rooftop a study of collaborated tiles.”
“‘You little slut!’ he roared at her. The words clobbered her in the back.”
“The slippery ground slurped at their feet …”
” … the gun clipped a hole in the night.”
More reasons to invigorate your verbs
Strong verbs make your description more descriptive. Other benefits of strengthening your verbs:
- You need fewer adverbs when you choose strong verbs.
- Benefits are verbs, not nouns.
- The verb is the story; strong verbs in the headline tell a better story.
June writing contest
How could you use more descriptive verbs to breathe new life into your copy? Let’s try it. Send Ann your best passage describing action with interesting verbs. She’ll publish the best in Rev Up Readership and Wylie’s Writing Tips.
And, if yours is the best of the best, you’ll get a gift from Ann.
Make Your Copy More Creative
Want to communicate better with creative copy?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team to handle a creative writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Make Your Copy More Creative workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to Make Your Copy More Creative in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Art of the Storyteller webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s learning tools on storytelling, metaphor and human interest. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. Find dozens of tipsheets on creative copywriting at RevUpReadership.com.
Sources: Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012
Véronique Boulenger, Beata Y. Silber, Alice C. Roy, Yves Paulignan, Marc Jeannerod and Tatjana A. Nazir, “Subliminal display of action words interferes with motor planning: A combined EEG and kinematic study,” Journal of Physiology-Paris, Vol. 102, Issues 1–3, January-May 2008, pp. 130-136
“God is in the structure.”
Richard Preston, author, The Demon in the Freezer
Help readers recall your message
When you organize your copy logically, readers can read it more easily and get more out of it.
Or so says Bonnie J. F. Meyer, Ph.D., professor of Educational Psychology at Penn State University. She completed a five-year research project for the National Institute on Aging to find out what helped adults understand and remember what they’d read.
One element that made a big difference: the structure of the piece.
Ya gotta schemata
The reason: People have mental frameworks — aka schemata — that they’ve built through experience and instruction. These mental frameworks provide a skeletal structure for organizing information as they read. (Anderson, 1977; Rumelhart, 1975)
The clearer the writer’s framework, the easier it is for readers to place new information into their own schematas. Otherwise, information just comes across as a list of facts, which people can only recall through rote memorization.
Here’s how, according to Meyers, that you can use structure to help people read your piece faster and remember it longer:
Follow a “topical plan.”
People read faster and remember more information that’s logically organized than they do when the same information is disorganized. (Kintsch, Mandel and Kozminsky, 1977)
Help them read faster. In one study, for instance, researchers gave half of the participants 1,400-word narrative passages and asked them to write a summary. The other half read the same information but with the content scrambled.
The summaries were much the same, but the scrambled versions took much longer to read. Readers needed the extra time to unscramble the content.
Help them remember longer. In another study, junior college students read two texts. Then they wrote down whatever they remembered, first right after reading, then again one week later.
Those who recognized and used the author’s structure to organize their memories retained far more content. They remembered the main ideas especially well, even a week later, and recovered more specific details, as well.
Those who didn’t use the author’s structures made disorganized lists of seemingly random ideas and couldn’t recover either the main ideas or the details very well. (Meyer, Brandt and Bluth 1980)
Choose a familiar structure.
Here are five structures that work, Meyers says:
|Antecedent and consequence||Show cause and effect, if … then.||A bylined editorial may use this approach.|
|Comparison||Present two or more opposing viewpoints.||Political speeches often use this approach.|
|Description||Develop the topic by describing its component parts, such as attributes, specifications or settings.||Newspaper articles, for instance, explain who, what, when, where, why and how.|
|Response||Organize by remark and reply, question and answer or problem and solution.||Case studies focus on problem, solution, results.|
|Time-order||Relate events or ideas chronologically.||Company profiles often use this approach.|
The descriptive plan, the one used by newspapers, is least effective at helping people remember, according to Meyer’s early research. In two studies, participants were more likely to remember information from comparative and antecedent/consequence pieces than from descriptive stories — both immediately after reading and again a week later.
Using a solid structure is always essential. But it’s particularly important if you’re writing to younger readers, adults with lower reading skills and people who are unfamiliar with the subject.
Build a solid structure
Want to master a story structure that increases readership instead of cutting it short?
- Get it off your desk: Bring Ann’s team in to write compelling copy.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a “Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid” workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann on developing the feature-style story structure in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid” teleseminar.
- Join the club: Get dozens of tipsheets on the feature-style story structure at RevUpReadership.com.
Source: Bonnie J. F. Meyer, “Reading Research and the Composition Teacher: The Importance of Plans, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 33, No. 1 (February 1982), pp. 37-49
“One reason why the older generation feel so strongly about English grammar is that we were severely punished if we didn’t obey the rules! One split infinitive, one whack; two split infinitives, two whacks; and so on.”
BBC correspondent on a program about English grammar
Are split infinitives still a grammar don’t?
It may be the most famous split infinitive of all time — Star Trek’s opening-sequence voice over:
“To boldly go where no man has gone before”
That’s a split infinitive, because the adverb “boldly” separates, or splits, the verb “to go.”
So, is that OK? Are split infinitives acceptable in modern English usage? Or does good writing demand that we keep our infinitives married?
To find out, I turned to my BFF and grammar tutor Wikipedia. Bottom line, according to the grammar gurus who put the “Split infinitive” page together?
“Most modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to the split infinitive.”
But there’s more to that story. Because historically, experts debated whether writers could properly split infinitives. Some believed — and still do — that split infinitives made sentences clearer and more elegant.
Lickity split: History of the split infinitive
“In those days men were real men, women were real women, small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before — and thus was the Empire forged.”
— Douglas Adams, author, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
A Mesopotamian first picked up a stick and wrote a word in 3200 B.C. But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages, according to linguists, that the first infinitive was split. During the Renaissance, the practice of infinitive-splitting lost favor — though William Shakespeare did split one:
“Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be“
Split infinitives reappeared in the 18th century and became more common in the 19th.
It wasn’t until 1897, though, that the term “split infinitive” emerged, followed in the 1920s by “infinitive-splitting” and “infinitive-splitter.”
From the beginning, rules against splitting infinitives were controversial. Authors of grammar texts argued that splitting infinitives was no crime and in fact often made sentences clearer.
Splitters and anti-splitters skirmished until the 1960s. George Bernard Shaw wrote letters to newspapers supporting writers who split infinitives. Raymond Chandler complained to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly after a proofreader changed Chandler’s split infinitives:
“When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split.”
After the 1960s, authorities relaxed the rules about splitting infinitives.
Split decision: Modern English usage
“There has never been a rational basis for objecting to the split infinitive.”
— Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage
Today’s grammar gurus agree that it’s fine to split an infinitive.
Why split infinitives? Among the arguments for infinitive-splitting:
1. It’s a non-issue in the first place. Keeping the “to” next to the “go”? Not important. As Otto Jespersen, author of Growth and Structure of the English Language, writes:
“‘To’ is no more an essential part of an infinitive than the definite article is an essential part of a nominative, and no one would think of calling ‘the good man’ a ‘split nominative.'”
2. It’s awkward not to split them. “Boldly to go where no man has gone before” just sounds weird. As James A. W. Heffernan and John E. Lincoln, authors of Writing: A College Handbook, 4th ed., write:
“An infinitive may be split by a one-word modifier that would be awkward in any other position.”
3. It’s clearer to split them. To make our copy clear, we place adverbs next to the verb they modify. Move the adverb, and you change the meaning. Take this sentence:
“She decided to gradually get rid of the kimonos she had collected.”
Move “gradually” to avoid splitting the infinitive, and you make the sentence wrong:
“She decided gradually to get rid of the kimonos she had collected.”
As Theodore M. Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, says:
“The natural position for a modifier is before the word it modifies. Thus the natural position
for an adverb modifying an infinitive should be just after the to … [T]he split infinitive is often an improvement.”
Splitting hairs: What now?
“Writers should learn to not split infinitives.”
So what do you do?
I, for one, am an infinitive-splitter who splits infinitives with abandon.
Besides the arguments expert grammarians lay out for splitting infinitives, there’s another one: Split infinitives sound contemporary and conversational, more like busy business people than nagging English teachers. We reach readers by using the language they use, not by adhering to each formal rule of English composition.
Besides, I’d far rather my clients and colleagues worry about substantive writing issues — positioning their messages in the readers’ best interest, organizing arguments clearly and lifting ideas off the page or screen, for instance— than concern themselves with writing “rules” that have long outlived their heydays.
As Fowler and Fowler, authors of The King’s English, write:
“The ‘split’ infinitive has taken such hold upon the consciences of journalists that, instead of warning the novice against splitting his infinitives, we must warn him against the curious superstition that the splitting or not splitting makes the difference between a good and a bad writer.”
Consider yourself warned: Whenever it makes your sentence clearer, more elegant and more conversational, it’s more than OK to boldly split infinitives.
Cut Through the Clutter
Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to handle a special writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Cut Through the Clutter workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to cut the clutter in your own copy in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Cut Through the Clutter webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Cut Through the Clutter manual.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of Cut Through the Clutter tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
Source: “Split infinitive,” Wikipedia
“The reading of the comic book is an act
of both aesthetic perception and intellectual pursuit.”
Will Eisner, one of the most important contributors to the development of comic books
Put this tool in your utility belt
When CenterPoint Energy needed to generate excitement for its United Way giving drive, they turned to some unlikely folks for help.
The Blue Flame, Energy Force, Major Setback, The Mysterious Matrix, Pipeline and Power Arc all showed up to get the word out about the campaign.
These superheroes appeared on the campaign’s posters and messages to leaders. Some even made personal appearances: CenterPoint employees wore superhero costumes to United Way campaign kickoff meetings and in the community for a movie.
Over the years, thanks to blockbuster campaigns like this one, CenterPoint has seen participation climb from 46% in 2007 to 63 percent in 2012 campaign, reports Lisa Foronda, CenterPoint Energy Community Relations supervisor.
And total employee contributions have risen from $1.2 million in 2007 to $1.64 million in 2012.
Drive action with superheroes.
Of the 25 million employees in the United States who are eligible to contribute to flexible spending accounts (FSAs), fewer than 5 million — some 20% — actually contribute.
That’s too bad. FSAs let employees save pre-tax dollars through payroll deductions for eligible health care and dependent care expenses. Depending on your tax bracket, FSAs can save you up to 35% on doctor’s visits and cough syrup.
Ceridian administers FSAs for 2,400 client companies. These companies employ 3 million staffers who were eligible to contribute to flexible spending accounts. Still, only a fraction actually participated.
To boost participation, communicators developed an awareness campaign.
Their goal: to increase the number of people enrolled in Ceridian-administered FSAs by 1.5% to 2%.
At he center of this campaign was Flexman and his sidekick Piggy Bank. “[We] decided that a cartoon superhero would have the widest appeal and garner the most attention,” says Christine Miller, whose Millerwood Communications worked on the campaign. Flexman starred in some animated Web cartoons, which Ceridian shared with its client companies for distribution to their eligible employees.
Flexman garnered attention and drove employees to act. The campaign increased enrollment by 14.7% — about seven times the original goal.
Communicate your mission, vision and values.
Superheroes can also be a great tool for bringing your mission, vision and values to life.
These corporate messages, designed to drive behavior toward the organization’s biggest goals, often languish in 6-point type in annual reports and on the backs of business cards. Instead, personify your values with superheroes.
Former Marvel Comics artist and CommunicatingWithComics.com chief superhero drawer Bill Wylie developed these to illustrate an organization’s values of quality, safety and service.
Communicate With Comics.
Ready to try graphic storytelling for your communications?
I’ve recently teamed up with Bill Wylie, former Marvel Comics illustrator, to help organizations tell their stories and sell their messages through graphic storytelling. Let me know if we can help you get your message across with a:
- Comic strip
- Comic story
- Comic book
- Graphic novel
Bill and I look forward to working with you to bring the power of words + pictures to your next campaign or communication.
Check out our new website, CommunicatingWithComics.com, to learn more ways to move people to act with visual storytelling.
“Working with Ann was eye-opening! I learned how to get organized, structure my work and make sure it connects with my audience. I’m looking forward to working with her again as I continue to practice.”
Cara Crosetti, digital strategist, Spiffy Web
Pump up your writing with one-on-one coaching
Ever wish you had a writing coach — sort of a personal editorial trainer? In customized one-on-one consultations, I’ll help you jump-start your writing skills, recharge your batteries and get your creative juices flowing.
We’ll work on your own copy — not made-up assignments with little relationship to your work. You’ll learn how to:
- Sell your ideas with reader-centric writing
- Organize your copy so it’s easier to read — and write
- Make your information more creative and compelling
- Measurably improve readability
- Lift your ideas off the page
- And more
Put yourself in good company
Communicators at such companies as Fleishman Hillard, H&R Block, John Deere, Nokia and VSP (Vision Service Plan) have already worked with me to polish their writing skills. If you’re ready to take this important step to improving your own work, contact me.
“Ann not only says, ‘Think Like a Reader,’ she shows us how.”
Chuck Williams, Providence Health Services
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.
But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Boston on June 22. Writing That Sells, a one-day workshop for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
- Chicago on June 27. Write for Readability, a breakout session for the 2012 IABC World Conference
- Green Bay, Wis., on Oct. 23. Catch Your Reader, an afternoon workshop for PRSA Northeast Wisconsin
- Miami on Dec. 7. Writing that Sells, a one-day workshop for PRSA
- New York on Sept. 21. Web Writing Boot Camp, a one-day workshop for PRSA
- Portland, Ore., on July 20. Catch Your Reader, a half-day workshop for PRSA Portland Metro
- Portland, Ore., on May 9, 2013. Make Your Copy More Creative, a workshop for the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) annual conference
- San Francisco on Oct. 14 – 15. Write for Social Media, a half-day pre-conference program, and Make Your Copy More Creative, a breakout session, at the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) 2012 International Conference
- Spokane, Wash., on Sept. 27. Catch Your Readers, a morning workshop for PRSA Greater Spokane
- Tacoma, Wash., on Aug. 15. Best Practices in PR Writing, a half-day workshop for PRSA/Puget Sound
- Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4-5. Catch Your Readers and Write for the Web, two one-day workshops for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Austin, Texas: Nov. 8
- Boston: June 22, Aug. 7
- Chicago: June 27
- Dallas: July 17
- Green Bay, Wis.: Oct. 23
- Kansas City, Mo.: Oct. 24-28, Christmas week
- Miami: Dec. 7
- New York: Sept. 21
- Phoenix: July 24
- Portland, Ore.: July 20; May 9, 2013
- San Francisco: Oct. 14-15
- Seattle: July 12
- Sonoma County, Calif.: Nov. 2-5
- Spokane, Wash.: Sept. 27
- Tacoma, Wash.: Aug. 15
- Washington, D.C.: Oct. 4-5
Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Writing and editing magazine, brochure, website and newsletter copy for Saint Luke’s Health System and Mediware
- Presenting writing workshops for Merck, Aviva, MedStar Health, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), Ragan Corporate Writers and Editors conference, and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) annual conference
- Presenting webinars for PRSA
- Providing one-on-one writing coaching for individual communicators
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via:
- ComPRehension, PRSA’s blog of public relations strategies and tactics
- Wylie Communications feed, click RSS
- Wylie’s Writing Tips