the book doctor: using verbs



Verbs are the drivers of sentences. Many beginning writers overlook them in favour of the more showy adjectives and adverbs at their disposal. However, using verbs well and cutting back on descriptives can do much to make prose active, lively, and powerful.



What does a verb do?

The verb controls the sentence. It carries the action and focuses the ideas.

Why do writers need to rethink the way they use verbsverbs?

Many writers rely on adjectives instead of verbs. If this is done constantly, it can lead to weak sentences. Focusing on verbs instead of adjectives can strengthen the flow and emotive punch of a work. It can also make it shorter.

What are some common problems in using verbs?

  • Using uninteresting verbs

The cat went to the window. ‘Went’ is pretty unexciting.

The cat crept to the window. Better; we get an idea of something more than just direction: mood or intent. But ‘crept’ is pretty ordinary too, when it comes to cats.

The cat slithered to the window. Not so ordinary, and suggesting a little menace as well, because of the association of slithering with snakes.

A well chosen verb tells us something interesting and specific about the subject.


  • Using passive verb forms

These slow down a sentence. They also take more words, drawing attention away from the subject and the action.Compare the passive and active forms of these sentences:

The jogger was hit by a car. A car hit the jogger.

The torch was carried by my grandfather. My grandfather carried the torch.

  • Using continuous past instead of simple past

Again, this adds words and slows action. Compare:

John was sitting at his computer. John sat at his computer. (or slumped, crouched over, dozed—all tell us more than sitting)

In general, novels are written in simple past tense, and use continuous tenses for specific reasons.

  • Hiding the verb as a noun

Sometimes this is done to make a sentence seem more important than it needs to be. It removes the feeling of action from a sentence:

The cashier handed in her resignation is simpler as The cashier resigned.
The mechanic made an adjustment to the carburettor can be The mechanic adjusted the carburettor.

Using the verb form of these phrases removes a lot of little unimportant words and unclutters the sentence.

  •  Using a form of the verb ‘be’ (am, is, are, was, were) at the beginning of a sentence.

This weakens a sentence, putting something unimportant at a place with impact, the beginning:

There was a whoosh as the rocket flew into the air. The rocket whooshed into the air.
It was a cold winter's day when Jack went hunting. One cold winter's day Jack went hunting.  

The following paragraph contains an example of each of the problems listed above. See if you can identify them, and rewrite the paragraph to avoid them.

There was a ring at the door. I went to open it, and saw my grandmother on the porch. She was wearing stilettos and a black leather jacket. It appeared that she had dyed her hair orange. Behind her, a Harley-Davidson was being revved by a tattooed bikie.



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