The power of words

Today I’m working from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1986) and thinking about the power of individual words. There’s a lot of chatter in primary education about ‘wow words’ and ‘powerful words’, but what on earth does that actually mean? It’s easy to make your writing sound like it’s swallowed a thesaurus; what’s more difficult is to think about how you use each word. I’m a firm believer that it’s all in the how you use it rather than just what you use.

So, onto today’s writing. We’re going to look at what Goldberg describes as ‘the action and energy of a sentence’ – verbs. Here is a simple exercise she sets out in her book to help you think about how you use them.

Divide a piece of paper in half by folding or drawing a line. On the left side of the page write ten nouns. They can be absolutely anything. These were mine: cauliflower, geranium, milk bottle, grass, fork, shed, olive oil, whisper, couscous, boots.

Now, think of an occupation, again it can be anything, I chose ‘hairdresser’. On the opposite side of your page list fifteen verbs which are associated with your chosen occupation (you may want to hide your list of nouns so they don’t distract you). Here are mine: chop, wash, snip, cut, colour, brush, tousle, sweep, chatter, blowdry, comb, straighten, trim, shave, curl.

Look at all of the nouns and verbs you have written and try to join them together to make new combinations. You can change the tense of the verbs if you need to, and I also pluralised a few nouns. You may get some funny sounding sentences, some brilliant ones too. You will certainly see the words in a fresh light and the individual power of each verb. Here are my favourites:

Boots chop through the mud.

Milk bottles chatter in the crate.

Olive oil sweeps across the pan.

The more you are awake to all aspects of language, the more vibrant your writing will be. (Goldberg)

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