Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fiction Techniques for Non-Fiction Writers—Verbs Can Change the World

Active verbs and specific nouns bring the article/story to life

Not: The scent was fresh and new like a flower after the rain.
Instead: The fresh scent hung in the air like a late blooming rose after the rain.
Not: It’s hard on feet.
Instead: It’s not abrasive on bare feet.
Not: It looks good in any room.
Instead: It looks equally well in a metal loft or a room with exposed wooden beams.

Not: Susan felt restless.
Instead: Susan paced across the floor, wearing a pattern in the dust.
Not: They’re no longer large, dim lights for bathrooms.
Instead: They’re no longer boring, utilitarian monstrosities shedding poor light on a dingy bathroom.
Not: Some provide on a small amount of accent light.
Instead: Some of them emitting only a drop of light, highlighting an accent wall with brilliance.

Not:  Cayce was in the yard taking her morning romp.
Instead: Cayce romped in the yard, enjoying the morning to its fullest.
Not: Track lighting has improved and no longer looks dated. It’s smaller and uses updated technology.
Instead: Today’s track lighting has come a long way from the clunky black and chrome options of the seventies. Track lighting is sleek and graceful, often times utilizing halogen bulbs for intense bursts of light.

Avoid words that tell (like was), instead of show, what’s going on
-ly words                   
-ing words

Avoid passive sentences
Not: The roaring engine was loud.
Instead: The engine roared.  
Adjectives and Adverbs suck the life from nouns and verbs
Not: Stuart walked quickly across the yard.
Instead: Stuart darted across the yard.

Don’t name emotions                     
Not: Leslie felt restless.
Instead: Leslie held her hands in her lap, clenching and unclenching her fists out of sight.

Telling Example
Catherine looked at her lovely childhood home. She saw the horribly neglected yard and remembered a happier time. Her feelings of despair almost overwhelmed her. She knew she would find a way to get through the next few weeks, but it wouldn’t be very easy.

Showing Example
Catherine peered out the car window at a past she never thought to face. Overgrown trees and bushes loomed down at her as she got out. She explored the yard, games of tag and kick-the-can echoing in her mind. The familiar bench, half hidden by an overgrown wisteria bush, beckoned with promises of rest and peace. She shook her head, peace would be hard to find without Tom beside her. How would she get through the days to come? A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She could almost hear Tom’s voice, “Work, my dear, it keeps the hands busy and the memories at bay.”  

All these tips can take your non-fiction from good to great. Now I'd like to know, how do you create a mood when you write articles/devotions/non-fiction?  What questions do you have about when it's appropriate to tell versus show?

Don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. Thanks for this post, Edie. I knew about avoiding passive verbs and coming up with more descriptive ones, but naming specific nouns is new to me. I'll have to work on implementing that.

  2. I'm printing this one to keep on my desk. I read tips like these, then go right back to "I felt ... " Maybe if it's in my face, I'll remember. Thank you, Edie.