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The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life
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.
—E. B. White