Strong Active Verbs: Your Writing’s Backbone

When writers begin to acquaint themselves with SELF-EDITING techniques, they often open their manuscript docs, only to get lost. What should you do first? What does “tightening” prose mean?
Writing Tip for Today: While self-editing skills develop with practice, an easy place to start is with your verb choices. Strong active verbs can do much more than simply make your writing easier to read.

  • Cop An Attitude. Precise verbs convey action, emotion and attitude. For example: She moved across the room and went out the door. This sentence could say so much more than a simple chronicle of what happened. With strong, active verbs, you might glean the character’s mood or motivation as well. Substitute “move” and “went,” both general verbs, with more precise ones. EX: She stomped across the room and stormed out the door. Stomp is moving, stormed is going– but stomp and storm give us a far more precise picture of the scene.
  • Ditch the “ings.” Look through your recent draft and spot all the sentences with a “was ing” construction. Replace many of these with a simple past tense verb. “She was walking to school” becomes “she walked to school.” Unless you need the reader to envision a continual motion, stick to simple past tense most of the time.
  • Kick Passive to the Curb. The various forms of the verb “to be,” (is, are, was, were) don’t tell you much about the action. By substituting passive sentences (A penny was found by Jane) with simple subject-verb-direct object sentences (Jane found a penny), you not only give the action in a more direct way, you can prevent overuse of the “to be” verbs that are static. With practice, you should see immediate progress if you start self-editing by examining your verb choices. That’s one example of tightening!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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