Only the Strong (Verbs) Survive

Here’s a bonus tip I left out of my recent post on proofreading. One of the most common words used in the English language is “is” and its variants. Unfortunately, “is” signifies only existence, a quality of being, and not anything interesting about the nature of the existence being described. So it’s important to use verbs that convey more meaning, that carry forward the action or ideas that make up our work. Paying special attention to the kinds of verbs you use in your writing, and replacing them with stronger verbs when proofreading, can make a big difference in the final product. Listen:

  • John was from Omaha, and was over six feet tall. He was standing in the back of the bar when I first saw him, and was glaring at a waitress who had snubbed him earlier. I was intimidated by him, but I knew he was someone I had to talk to, because he was the only one who knew who had killed Frank.
  • John came from Omaha, and stood well over six feet tall. I first noticed him standing at the back of the bar, glaring at a waitress who had snubbed him. He intimidated me, but I knew I had to speak to him because he alone knew who did in Frank.

I’m certainly no mystery writer, but the second passage does a much better job of capturing the tension and foreboding of the scene. Using forceful verbs helps you avoid the “passive voice” that Microsoft’s grammar checker is always nagging you about, and it gives you another tool besides adverbs and adjectives to flesh out your description. It also makes for more exciting, snappier prose, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that!

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