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Use Specific Nouns and Verbs for Vivid Writing

Here’s a tip that improves any genre of writing—make your nouns as specific as possible. The more specific your nouns are the richer the mental picture will be in your readers’ minds.

As an example, we might write:

            Mud covered her footwear.

The word footwear is a vague noun that doesn’t tell us much. It’s better to be specific, so we could add an adjective and write new footwear. But don’t we want to know even more? Were they boots? Sneakers? High heels? We can enrich our readers’ mental picture by using a more specific noun:

            Mud covered her sandals.

Be especially careful to not use the vaguest of nouns, terms such as thing or something. One of my students once wrote this in an advertisement:

            I’ve found something to cure my sore muscles.

What is the something? A medical device? A cream? A physical therapist?

Let’s change something to a more specific term. The product we were writing about was a rub-on salve, so we could write:

            I’ve found an ointment that cures my sore muscles.

To improve our writing even more, we can not only replace vague nouns with stronger ones, as above, but kill adjectives if possible. As an example:

           Good people rushed into the burning building to save the children.

The noun people is vague. Let’s replace it with a more descriptive noun and kill the adjective good.

           Heroes rushed into the burning building to save the children.

The same advice about specificity applies to verbs and adverbs. Replace weak verbs with stronger ones and kill adverbs. If your character just completed a marathon, don’t write:

            “I’m really tired,” she said.

That’s weak. Let’s use a stronger verb and kill the adverb:

            “I’m exhausted,” she said.

As with any advice, there are a couple of caveats. The first is to be sure you don’t change or muddle meaning. Here’s an example where replacing a noun with a more specific one and killing an adjective created a problem. We might write:

            An elected official led the meeting.

But who is this mysterious “elected official”? Let’s be specific.

            The mayor led the meeting.

Now we can more readily picture who led the meeting. But what if the elected official wasn’t the mayor? In that case we’ve misled our readers.

The second potential issue to watch out for is this: when you use more specific nouns don’t ignore other aspects of good writing, such as not repeating words. This sentence contains the non-specific noun people:

            More than 81 million people voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

Voters would be a more precise noun than people, but we don’t want to write:

            More than 81 million voters voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

The fix is easy; substitute a different noun for voters:

            More than 81 million citizens voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

Full disclosure: following this advice takes work! It’s easier to use vague nouns and verbs than to replace them with more specific words. But providing details is superior writing. A thesaurus will help you find a more specific word.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski