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The Complete Writer: Verb As Weapon *FREE READ*

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 The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 3
Verbs: Choose Your Weapon Carefully

With permission from the author, I’m going to share a few phrases by one of my favorite clients. This material comes from a chapter of a novel set in the Antebellum South.

• Spring was on the verge of turning into summer in East Georgia.
• The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue . . .
• The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.
• Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating . . .
• . . . sounds and scents grew stronger.
• Hawks floated silently in the sky, . . . searching the earth below for dinner.
• Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony . . .
• . . . cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise . . .

A lot could be said about these fragments of description. But let’s focus on one aspect of the copy—possibly the crucial aspect: its verbs.

As you know, a verb is a part of speech that expresses the action going on in an utterance. In daily speech, we tend to be fairly loose with our verbs: we use verbs of being to form unnecessarily verbose turns of phrase (“she was of the opinion that” when “she thought” would do the job faster and better); we cling to the passive voice (“mistakes were made”); we use vague or bland or squishy terms when a stronger verb would get the idea across more directly, more clearly, and more memorably . . . we could go on and on.

None of those misdemeanors is ungrammatical or unidiomatic. But as writers, we get to edit our language before the reader has to “listen” to it. And so, we can do better.

Here are six strategies to accomplish that goal:

1. Whenever possible, use action verbs, not verbs of being (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been)

2. Avoid analogues to verbs of being, such as seem or appear, unless there’s a good reason to use one.

3. Instead of a verb + an adverb (a word ending in -ly), try to pick a verb that carries the meaning of the action plus the adverb. For example: instead of “she walked slowly across the campus,” try “she ambled, she strolled, she meandered, she plodded, she wandered, she dawdled. . . .”

4. Prefer strong, expressive verbs to wishy-washy ones.

5. Avoid the passive voice unless there’s a good reason to use it.

6. Use the simple present (he goes) or the simple past (he went) rather than the progressive tenses (he is going; he was going), unless there’s a good reason for it.

Let’s try applying these principles to Author’s gilded words. With a little alchemy and those six tips, we can turn that chapter from gold-plate to 14-carat.

Spring was on the verge of turning into summer. . . .

Why is this sentence such a snoozer? Because Author missed his chance to engage a vivid, strong verb. Instead, he brazenly flouted Rule 1 and inserted a bland, Pablumesque verb of being (was) plus a verbose prepositional phrase (on the verge) plus another verbose prep phrase (of turning) plus yet a THIRD prep phrase (into summer).

What does on the verge of mean? Maybe “about to”? Spring was about to turn into summer. That’s a little bit better. But it’s boring.

We’ve gotta get rid of that verb of being! How can we express the idea that summer is y-cumen in with a single, expressive action word?

• Spring was merging into summer
• Spring was shifting into summer…
• Spring was blending into summer…
• Spring was bleeding into summer…
• Spring was melting into summer…
• Spring was verging into summer…

Some of these possibilities are better than others. “Spring was bleeding, . . .” for example, might work despite its whiff of the purple because this chapter portrays people in slavery. “To verge” is a little rarified—I personally would avoid it. To my ear, “was shifting” sounds like a Ford Fairlane with four on the floor: jarring in the context. “Merge,” “blend,” “melt”: any of those might work, and any would improve on “was” + prep phrase + prep phrase + prep phrase.

Now what if we apply Rule 6 (prefer simple to progressive tenses)?

• Spring merged into summer in East Georgia .
• Spring  bled into summer in East Georgia.
• Spring blended into summer in East Georgia.

This is looking better. Two minor edits—pick a strong verb and put it in a simple instead of a progressive tense—and now we have a pretty arresting opening sentence. And I like the “bleed” verb a lot better. Since this is the first sentence of the book’s first chapter, we tentatively add a second propositional phrase, “in East Georgia,” to ground the reader in the scene’s place. On second thought, though, we might be improve it by turning that prep phrase into a noun phrase:

• An East Georgia spring bled into summer.

In the interest of economical writing, try to avoid strings of prepositional phrases. Our author did so at the outset, but simply placed the “in East Georgia” phrase deeper in the first page. Write tight, and get to the point.

Here are two sentences that appear in the same paragraph:

The sun was changing from pale yellow to a more intense incandescent hue. . . .
The sky was changing from a pale blue to a deeper shade.

Let’s remember de Maupassant’s rule: never use the same word twice on the same page. So: we’d like to get rid of at least one of those changings, without getting too “elegant” about it. And as we can see, we have a Rule 6 issue, too: was changing is in the past progressive.

The “changing” choice is painfully bland. Vanilla’s nice in ice cream, but we ain’t makin’ ice cream here! How was it changing? What result did the change effect?

• The sun’s pale yellow began to heat into an incandescent glare.
• The sun’s winter yellow flared into incandescence.
• Sunlight intensified, pale yellow brightening toward a furnace-like incandescence.
• The sun’s disk brightened, winter’s pale yellow shifting into summer’s full incandescence.
• The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and took on a burning incandescent glare.
• The sun shed its pallid winter yellow and assumed a burning incandescent glare.

Any of these would likely do. The second has brevity to recommend it. The third strikes me as fairly evocative; so does the second. The last three choices strike me as overly erudite, even verbose; for that reason I would reject them.

Testing the process on the second example:

• The sky shed its wintry pallor and deepened toward azure.
• The pale winter sky deepened into a richer, darker blue.
• Winter’s pale blue sky grew deeper, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.
• Winter’s pale blue sky deepened, as if to make the sun look more brilliant.

Moving on . . .

Life seemed more vibrant and pulsating . . .
. . . sounds and scents grew stronger.

“Pulsating?” Like an electric guitar, maybe? Georgia had rock bands in 1855? Probably not. What can we do with this?

For starters, let’s get rid of the quasi-verb of being, seemed. Then let’s convert the adjective and the adjectival participle into verbs:

• Life vibrated and pulsed.

Well. I suppose. Or maybe not: brings to mind some sort of alien blob, doesn’t it? It Came from Outer Space! But it does boil three words into one: seemed more vibrant to vibrated; [seemed more] pulsating to pulsed. None too felicitous, though.

• Life, vibrant and pulsating, emanated new sounds and scents.

Love those sesquipedalian words! But . . . unless you have a good reason to emit them, maybe you shouldn’t.

The narrator here speaks in the voice of a highly educated Black man. He can get away with the adjectival participles, and he surely would have the word “emanate” at his fingertips. So . . . maybe. But would anyone really say that? Maybe not.

• Life, vibrant and pulsating, filled the air with new sounds and scents.

Better. Moving on.

Hawks floated silently in the sky, . . . searching the earth below for dinner.

All right. I mean, sort of OK. “Floated silently” demands two words when one will do. “Searching the earth below” feels like a dull way to anthropomorphize a raptor. And hawks do not have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they grab what they can get and bolt it down when they can get it.

My favorite image for a raptor or avian scavenger “floating in the sky” is “riding a cold column of air.” I don’t recall where I stole that turn of phrase: probably from Wallace or Page Stegner or maybe from Scott Momaday. Whatever: don’t use it. It’s red-hot.

Can we try to come up with an image of our own? At the very least let’s look for something that means “floated silently.”

• Hawks brooded overhead, searching the earth for an unwary meal.
• Silent hawks gazed down from the sky, searching . . .
• Quiet as owls, hawks hovered above, searching . . .
• Quiet as gentle death, hawks hovered above . . .

Enough of that. Don’t just sit there: come up with something of your own.

Dogs could be heard, some near, some in the distance, barking and yelping, adding their measure to nature’s strange cacophony. . . .

Passive voice! Plus a convoluted series of participles, plus a sesquipedalianism. Oh Lord, spare us, thy hapless readers . . .

Let’s apply Rule 5 and then also try to empty the marbles out of Author’s mouth:

• Dogs, some near and some distant, barked and yelped, adding their measure to Nature’s steel-drum beat.
• Dogs near and far barked and yelped, adding . . .
• Barking dogs harmonized in a raucous chorus, sending up a sociable racket that no ears could evade.

Note the infelicitous rhyme here: raucous chorus. In a real revision, it would disqualify this effort. The image of the evasive ears is a little weird, too. Remember: it’s usually better to kill than to add words. Thus . . . “Barking dogs near and far sent up a sociable racket that no one could evade.”

Or some such.

. . . cats, like the hawks aloft, simply moved about stealthily, preferring not to announce their presence but rather to strike by surprise . . .

Tacking adverbs onto a feeble verb does not make the feeble verb any less feeble.

• Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, slunk through the grass…
• Cats, hunters like the hawks aloft, stalked their prey through grass and shrubs…

Of these, only “stalked” strikes me as reasonably pleasing. In a single word, it evokes “moved about stealthily,” and it also takes an object (prey), reinforcing the hunter simile between the cats and the hawks. Keep.

Notice that often one’s attempts to revise will yield something almost as terrible (maybe we mean “even worse”?) than the first effort. The business with the raucous chorus and the ambulatory ears is probably the most laugh-inducing example here. This is why the writer plans on revising and editing several times, not just as the work progresses but in at least one go-through (preferably two or three) from beginning to end.

Specifically on the subject of verbs, though, here’s the take-home message:

The verb is the most powerful weapon in your writer’s arsenal. Some verbs are .22s, some are .38s, some are .45s . . . and so on. Pick the weapon that fits your purpose.

In general, try to use something stronger than a BB, but to avoid purple prose, don’t pull out a cannonball until it’s called for. When writing description, select some mid-range caliber, so it sounds like you’re speaking plain English even though the verbs are carrying their full weight in meaning and imagery.

Do not shoot yourself in the foot with the passive voice. Align the verb’s sights with your target and do not imagine a bevy of adverbs will shotgun your meaning into the bull’s-eye. Use the plainest, simplest weapon that will get the job done. And shoot straight.

Write tight.
—E. B. White

Write Tight! Part III: Techniques of Economical Composition and Style

Yesterday we discussed a few mechanical tricks to achieve “tight writing“: economical, readable, non-time-sucking style.

Some devices require a little more thought than the knee-jerk devices we just reviewed. These are compositional principles that you should internalize as you internalize the spelling of your own name.

Avoid the passive voice.

Verbs are words that express action, and they come in two voices, “active” and “passive.”

In the active voice, the action moves directly from the subject to the object of the action (the thing that is receiving the action). In our examples, we’ll color subjects red, verbs blue, and (when they exist) objects green:

 Joe shot the bear.

Notice that the receiver of the action here appears as the object of the verb, and the thing that is doing the action is the verb’s subject.

In the passive voice, the action moves in the opposite direction: the thing that receives the action suddenly appears as the verb’s subject, and the doer of the action is hidden in a prepositional phrase starting with “by,” which may or may not be explicitly stated. Let’s color prepositional phrases purple.

 The bear was shot [by Joe].

Because the passive voice always contains a past participle (a verbal that looks like it’s in the past tense, such as “shot”), many writers confuse it with the past tense. Remember, the way to tell whether a verb is in the passive voice is asking whether you can say the action was done by someone or something. If the phrase by xxxmakes sense, then the verb is in the passive voice.

Fix it by converting it to the active voice, unless you’re using the passive voice for a specific reason. In most circumstances, the passive voice is indirect and verbose—that’s why it’s a classic feature of bureaucratese.

 Use verbs conveying action, instead of verbs of being.

These are the verbs of being:

 am is are was were be being been

They’re perfectly fine words, and you can’t get around using them now and again. But they lack punch. Good writers make their verbs carry the weight of their sentences—and a verb of being doesn’t carry much weight. Instead of having the subject of a sentence just “be,” have it “do.”

Here’s a sentence by a real journalist:

Energetic and stimulating, Ríos is a favorite among students.

It conveys a little meaning, but overall, it’s a big Z, dull as white rice. What on earth does “stimulating” mean, anyway? And that fellow Ríos is buried in the middle of the sentence.

We could rewrite it:

 Students love the energetic and stimulating Ríos.

A little better—though insipid. The word “love” sounds too strong; it’s one of those words that have lost meaning from overuse. And the sentence still doesn’t show Ríos in action; it doesn’t show how the words “energetic” and “stimulating” define him.

My edited version—and I was perhaps guilty of going after this scribe with a heavy hand—read like this when it finally went to print:

 Ríos projects a sense of excitement and energy that charms his students.

Does it improve on the original? Maybe so; maybe not. As you can see, though, an insipid sentence inspires an insipid response in the reader, something you decidedly do not want to inspire.

Write in complete sentences. . .most of the time.

A complete sentence has a subject and a verb. It will not harm your style or bore your reader if you include a subject and a verb in every sentence.

Beginning writers seem to think it’s arty to cast their thoughts in fragments. Maybe they think it sounds dramatic.

In fact, though, sentence fragments have a function: they’re like exclamation points. They’re emphatic. Too many exclamation points make your copy sound like you’re panting.

Good writers use sentence fragments in the same way the use exclamation points: sparingly. To pepper a piece of writing with either fragments or exclamation points is bad style.

Want to be a better writer? Internalize these principles and tricks for tighter writing.Use Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate words.

Prefer the short word to the long one. Some folks apparently believe that the more syllables a word has, the more important it sounds. Not so. Think about the most common mouth-fillers, and consider their plain-English alternatives:

numerous (many)
donation (gift)
illustrate (show)
accountability (duty)
merchandise (stock)
acquiesce (agree)
communicate (say)
conference (meeting)
indicate (say, imply)
knowledgeable (trained)
optimal (best)
restructure (change)
institute (start)

This is what happens when you lard your language with important-sounding, Latinate words:

Members of the species homo sapiens who maintain an abode within a permanent or semipermanent structure composed at least partially or wholly of vitreous, transparent material would find it sagacious to refrain from hurling projectiles of natural material.

 Figured out what this means yet?

 People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. top

 Cut the jargon.

Of AIDS, a high-ranking bureaucrat once said, “The disease has heterosexualized, proletarianized, and ruralized.” So has the plague of gobbledygook.

Jargon is mishmash language. It obscures meaning while it implies that the speaker is an insider. Don’t confuse this term with “shop talk.” Some terms that are current in specific trades and industries have real meaning and need not be translated into verbose alternatives. Doctors and nurses, for example, know what an “EMT” is, and they know what has happened when someone has administered CPR. No—we’re talking about phony shop talk, fake insider language, ersatz sophistication.

You can learn to recognize jargon, which, like computer viruses, evolves constantly. For example, suspect any word that ends in -ize or -ate:

capacitize
prioritize
collateralize
administrate
orchestrate
facilitate
…even concertize!

Nouns and adjectives usually convert to jargon when they surface as brand-new verbs. Thus, the word “conference” becomes jargon when it’s used as a verb: “They conferenced about the computer program.” We’ve all heard these words several times too often:

to parent
to office
to network
to obsolete

Some jargon slithers into the language from baleful sources like admanese, educationese, political doublethink, and shop talk. They buzz interestingly but don’t mean much:

upscale
downscale
fast track
dog and pony show
hands-on
world class
downside
meaningful dialogue
revolution (as in “a marketing revolution”)
experience (as in “a dining experience”)

 The word “multiple”—meaning “many” or “more than one”—has suddenly cropped up like chicken pox on a six-year-old’s belly. There is nothing wrong with the word “many.” And “more than one” is far preferable to the mumbly “multiple.”

Avoid clichés like the plague. . . .

Clichés are aging quips that have worn thin with overuse. You can usually tell if a golden phrase is hackneyed by saying the first few words aloud. If the last few follow automatically, you’ve got a cliché.

Raining cats and…
Filled to the…
Fit as a…
Sell like…

 Use specific terms, not mush words.

Everyday language is awash in words devoid of solid meaning—such as “area” and “field.” That’s not my area; he’s an expert in the field. What do these things mean? Discipline? Concern? Meadow? Say what you mean!

Watch out for words like thing, idea, situation, experience, and group, which may mean anything from the Boy Scouts to a witches’ coven.

Use the right word.

Some words sound as though they mean something other than what they do mean.

fortuitous does not mean fortunate
appraised is not apprised
revenge is not to avenge
award is not to reward
verbal is not quite the same as oral

 Shun euphemisms.

Euphemism is prettified speech that supposedly softens blunt reality (“she passed away”) or replaces frank words with allegedly acceptable language (“little girls’ room”). Don’t be crude, but don’t be nicey-nice, either. A task force is a committee, a recreation facility is a gym, and an environmental engineer in education is a school janitor. top

Cut redundancies.Any unnecessary word is redundant. In the patter of every day speech, we repeat ourselves all the time. For example:

hot water heater
close proximity
one and only
more and more
single most
free gift
sworn affidavit
completely surrounded
future plans
return again
completely unable

 This may be O.K. when you’re talking, but don’t do it in writing. You can edit the written word—and you should.

Sometimes writers indulge in larger kinds of redundancy. We may accidentally repeat a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that appeared earlier in the document. Or we may have been taught a particularly pernicious method of composition, the “Tell them what you’re going to say; say it; and tell them what you said” approach. This is plain bad writing—don’t do it. In writing (as opposed to public speaking), you need say it just once.

Avoid portmanteau sentences.

This term was coined by James Kilpatrick, after Lewis Carroll. It compares an overburdened sentence to a stuffed suitcase. Consider, for example, this astonishing example from Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper industry—and ironically, a repository of bad writing:

Achorn suggested that women set the ground rules early and stick to them, not underestimate themselves or set their goals too low, be prepared for a certain amount of loneliness as they get to the top (it goes with the job), not carry a chip on their shoulders, take advantage of every educational and training opportunity, make sure their company has a sound policy against sexual harassment, not assume all women working with them are for them, be optimistic and not expect the workplace to solve all the problems and change cultural attitudes that have built up over the centuries.

Amazing. There was no need to recite every hackneyed aphorism the speaker uttered. But even if the advice were not trite, the sentence would still be overstuffed.

Use correct punctuation.

It’s does not mean its, and there’s no such thing as its’. Sentences slopped together with a comma instead of a conjunction or a semicolon just look…well, sloppy. Learn the difference between the plural and the possessive, and distinguish between the plural possessive and the singular possessive. You can learn these things. Get a second-hand freshman comp handbook to teach yourself details of punctuation and grammar that you might have missed in grade school, high school, or freshman composition. top

Proofread!

Remember to run the spellchecker as the second-to-last step in revising your work. But after that, always proofread with the brain! We’re still smarter than our computers.