Operation Ratio

I've been looking at this book lately: The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel (A Step-by-Step Guide to Perfecting Your Work). I say "looking at it," because I am not connecting with it in a big way. Don't let it stop you from taking a look at it, especially if you're seriously into process. I'm quite left-brained myself, however most of this book is too much, even for me.

That being said, I did find something intriguing in it, which is what Mr. Ray calls, "Operation Ratio." The language of fiction is word-pictures. Word pictures are created from strong verbs and concrete nouns. He suggests that you take a sample of your writing and circle the nouns and verbs.

Then create a running list of the abstract nouns in one column and the concrete nouns in another. Do the same for verbs: weak versus strong. Finally, run two ratios: concrete to abstract, and weak to strong.

The ratio of concrete to abstract nouns should be at least 3:1, but 6:1 is better. In three sample sentences of Hemingway’s prose, the ratio was 9:1.

What's the difference between a concrete and an abstract noun, you might ask? (Although I hope you don't. As writers, we should know that, right?) You can see, smell, taste, touch, hear, or feel a concrete noun. Good writing has three classes of concrete nouns: objects, body parts and landmarks. Abstract nouns are things that can’t be sensed, for example: time, year.

Then there are verbs. Weak verbs come in several types. For example, “He thought,” or “He wondered.” There are the “would, could, should,” verbs. There are infinitives, which attatch “to” to the verb, and there are passive verbs, where the person who’s doing the action in the sentence becomes the object of the sentence. Your prose might be full of verbs, but if the action generated is more mental than visceral, a word-picture isn't being created in the reader's mind.

What else does Ray suggest? Get rid of adverbs, which suffocate word-pictures. It’s far better to show the action, rather than to "tell" it with an adverb. Adverbs are nothing more than placeholders for better word choices.

If your pages are full of bland adjectives (such as the word "nice"--nice day, nice girl), abstract nouns, adverbs, and weak verbs, you are not creating strong word-pictures.

It's great food for thought. Tedious as it sounds to circle verbs and nouns in a scene, and then to run a ratio on them, I intend to try it. I suspect that this man is on to something ...

On Monday, I'll post a sample paragraph from my WIP, and then the improved version.

What about you? You're probably already looking for excess adjectives, adverbs to eliminate, and verbs to strengthen, but have you taken it so far as to run an Operation Ratio? Did it make a big difference in your prose?


  1. Hi Catherine,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog The Precocious Scribe. Have Joined up with yours as well.

    Nice looking blog by the way. very clean lines :-)

    Creat info in the post by the way. I do a similar thing with my academic writing. I go through and circle all words that don't add meaning. Or all words that can be reduced to one word just as well.

    (normally because my word limit is too high) but the upshot is i end up with fantastic well written essays :-) NOW just gotta do that with a 75,000 word manuscrip....uggggg

    Good luck with the writing looks like we are in a similar spot.

  2. Hello fellow Crusader!

    Thanks for coming by and for relating to me about having three kids. There are those days when I think having an even amount of children would have been wiser. Someone always gets left out right now. I'm tired.

    I really like this post. It's food for thought. I'm going to do my best at coming up with a ratio. I think a ratio per chapter might be a good idea.

    Happy Ratio-ing! (hmmm.) Happy Writing!

  3. This is great food for thought!

    "If the action generated is more mental than visceral, a word-picture isn't being created in the reader's mind." Ha, lightbulb moment. A good explanation for the argument for strong verbs. This struck a chord with me since just today in my revision I realized how often I use "could" and "would." I'll revisit tomorrow and see how I can make weed out the mental and add more visceral. If I have time, I'll try the ratio idea, too. Thanks!

  4. Sorry, meant to say "see how I can weed out the mental..." not "can make weed..." I think I'd better get out of here!!! Have a great night :-)

  5. That sounds like an interesting way to analyze writing~ I'll have to try it and see what kind of ratio I get!

  6. Hello fellow Crusader! I love the idea of word-pictures. Keeping that concept in mind lets the high-impact nouns, verbs and modifiers flow freely. Looking forward to getting to know you better!

  7. Hi fellow crusader. This is a wonderful post. I will have to try this exercise. Have a great weekend!

  8. Lovely to meet you fellow crusader! Thank you for dropping by and following my little blog. This is a really interesting post - looking forward to getting to know you better.

  9. Great tips!

    I try to do this instinctively in my writing, but Crit Partner says I fail in some places.

    Maybe I should give this a try...


  10. Hello Catherine! I'm finally catching up after having been sick the past few days! Saw your message about Key West and Denver and that you work in the Library. Sounds like we were twins separated by birth! LOL I look forward to getting to know you better!

  11. This is a great idea! I'm going to try it, too. I'm looking forward to when you post your sample paragraph!


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