Berry good nouns

In Sin and Syntax, I write about how nouns form the cornerstones of sentences, by giving shape to ideas and heft to sentences. Good writers take the time to get these key words right. Once, curious to see how Mark Twain worked his nouns, I pored over manuscripts at the University of California’s Bancroft Library. In an early, hand-written version of Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain had crossed out “flower beds” in a description of a Missouri house, replacing it with “potted geraniums.” The change made the flowers burst red into my imagination. (By the book’s publication the image had become even more concrete: “A breed of geranium whose spread of intensely red blossoms accented the prevailing pink tint of the rose-clad house-front like an explosion of flame.”) Jo Ann Beard, in the short story “Cousins,” does Twain one better. She includes similes to make the effect of geraniums more graphic:
Their house has a face on it, two windows with the shades half down, a brown slot of a door, and a glaring mouthful of railing with a few pickets missing. Pink geraniums grow like earrings on either side of the porch. It’s August and the grass is golden and spiky against our ankles, the geraniums small like dust.
The best writers I know have habits to make sure their words are as powerful as possible. It may seem old-fashioned, or just tedious, to work with a dictionary and a thesaurus at your side, but this is part of the practice of writing. Working with word books strengthens our imaginative muscles, and in turn strengthens our own mental thesauruses, our ability to call up precise words. (For my favorite word books, check out "Books to Inspire" in Cool Tools. There are other lists of books there, too.) To give you an example of how the craft works, take a common noun like fruit, which many of us might use in a first draft. How many more specific synonyms can you come up with? Let’s say one of them is berry. Can you do even better than that? List as many different kinds of berries as you can, using your mental thesaurus. When you’ve run out of synonyms, go to a literal thesaurus. (And not just any thesaurus. Try a Roget's style one.) How many more did you get? Now consult my running list. Prepare to be berry impressed.

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