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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Writer Mag Column 4: Imaginative Verbs

A bunch of “has-beens”: Use imaginative verbs, not the same old ones

Imagine you’re a fashion designer. You’ve spent months designing your outfits and making them the best you can. When Fashion Week comes around, you don’t want to find that your models are wearing the same old dresses as everyone else. Nor do you want them to walk down the runway in a dull manner. Plod, plod, plod. Rather, you want your models to strut and pose memorably. Pirouette, sashay, manage to stay upright while wearing incredibly high heels.

Now imagine you’re a writer. Oh, wait a minute; you already are. You’ve spent months designing your sentences and making them the best you can. When publication time comes around, you don’t want to discover that your sentences are wearing the same old verbs and that they’re walking through your sentences in a dull manner.

In sentences--and in fashion--you want to avoid the “has-beens”: you know, the verbs “to have” and “to be” and their equally dull friends “to get,” “to do” and “to use.” If you chop out your weak verbs and instead take advantage of descriptive verbs that entice and intrigue your readers, they will ask for more, not turn away out of boredom.

A sentence with a weak verb tends to be a weak sentence. We’re not talking grammar here; rather, we’re talking about style. Don’t automatically think you’ve written a good sentence just because it’s grammatically correct. Lots of bad sentences are grammatically correct. Some of these bad sentences might even be yours, especially if they contain one of the has-beens.

The most famous bad sentence of all time contains a has-been: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Although I can’t complain about the grammar of this sentence, it does display the unimaginative “it was” construction. Snore. In the same vein, “Once upon a time, there was …” will not win any awards, no matter how imaginative the fairy tale that follows. Again, the sentence is perfectly grammatical, but it displays the unimaginative “there was” construction. “It is,” “it was,” “there is,” “there was” and “there were” should all go the way of polyester: to the recycle bin.

Alas, these common constructions are not the only ones you’ll need to throw away. So I’m going to lay down a few rules for you designers who are searching for the most innovative ways to create your masterpieces; i.e., sentences:

1. Please, no more “it is”/“it was”/“there is”/“there was”/“there were.” There are more imaginative ways to express yourself. Of course, it is harder than it looks to come up with imaginative verbs. There is  a trick that you can use: It is called trying to be more specific.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve written a weak sentence like this: “There was a woman who was good at writing.” First, shame on you for using two “to be” verbs in one sentence. Second, fix it! You have to focus on the woman and decide some specifics. Be creative, not vague. What color hair does this lady have? What body type is she? Is she wearing something noteworthy? You could start your sentence with “The talented purple-haired writer” and then use a specific, interesting verb to finish off the thought. Go ahead and try out this technique here, and then try it each time you compose a sentence.

2. Eliminate most cases of passive voice, a writing style where you place the object of the sentence into the subject position.

Another snore. A prodigious amount of passive writing is written by writers, and it has to stop. I’m sure that a whole article about this topic can be written by me. The editors will be contacted shortly and you will be notified of the publication date soon. Was all that passive voice caught by you? Go for active voice most of the time. You’ll thereby reduce how often you use “is,” “was” and “were.”

3. Avoid the following phrases, all of which contain the verbs “to be” and “to have”: “is/are able to,” “has/have/had the capability to” and “has/have/had the ability to.”

Modern sentences don’t need all that extra padding. The words “can” or “could” work just fine in all these cases. I think you can; I think you can.

4. Go through your manuscript and eliminate everyday verbs wherever possible.

You can search and replace on the computer, or circle and replace on paper. Personally, I like to circle weak verbs furiously with a red pen, but you can do whatever fits into your revision process. No matter how you learn the location of your weak verbs, your goal is to--I mean, you should aim to--find sentences that seem too general because of a blah verb and then improve them. It is likely that you can cut at least half of the “has-beens.”

Please follow these useful rules diligently. I understand that you can’t cut out every “to be” and “to have” verb. We say them all the time, and they come to our heads unbidden. So, OK--these verbs are allowed sometimes. You may use run-of-the-mill verbs in your rough draft, but your final, polished version must keep readers engaged with specific, active verbs.

But beware: You want to dress your sentences appropriately; don’t overdress them with fancy verbs that don’t fit. Add a bit of flair that suits the occasion.

It is practice time. This Criminal Paragraph needs help. It is bland, and there are too many to be and other uninteresting verbs that add no substance. I know that you have the ability to fix it. Decide what kind of person the paragraph refers to; pay attention to the mood that pervades the scene; get specific. Send your rewrites to, and I’ll make sure your designs are up to snuff.

Criminal Paragraph

It was a dark and cloudy morning when Penelope got out of bed and saw that it was time for her to get ready to walk in the runway show. There were going to be a lot of outfits that she would have to wear during the 30-minute show, and it would be necessary for her to put them on fast. Although she knew that she had the ability to do what was required, she thought that it was not going to be fun. She was an experienced model but there were rumors that there were going to be a few fresh-faced models at the show. Perhaps it was time for 30-year-old Penelope to do another job. There had always been that thought that she could work in her cousin’s pastry shop.

As you’ve learned in this fashion tutorial, a weak outfit (sentence) will not lure buyers (readers). So, when you design your outfits (sentences), please be more imaginative about how you dress your models (verbs). Remember that dark and stormy nights are such has-beens. Today, it is a bright and sunny day!


Anonymous said...

This article was the first piece of your work I ever saw, and I have to admit I found it was somewhat annoying.

Overspiced language is no more attractive than overspiced food. Artificially glamorizing verbs is a sure sign of an attempt to cover up for a lack of substance in the underlying thought. The more makeup you see on that girl at the bar, the more you should wonder what she would look like with it off. In other words, avoid dressing up your sentences like a cheap tart.

Steve said...

Oops! I meant to write "... I found it somewhat annoying."

The Sentence Sleuth said...

Sorry I'm annoying.
I certainly don't advocate using SAT words just to sound fancy.
Perhaps you would enjoy reading "Sin and Syntax," pp. 63-5. A great resource, it doesn't favor "to be" verbs, either.