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Take care of your verbs, and they’ll take care of you

August 8, 2010

Paul is currently fast asleep and has doubtless forgotten to post anything this week. To spare his blushes, and make it look like this was all planned, we welcome back Icy Sedgwick as a guest writer…

I don’t make any claim to being psychic, but I can guarantee that there are three words that any writer, both aspiring or experienced, will have come across at some stage on their writing journey.

Show, don’t tell.

It’s valid advice. However, I’ve noticed that much of this advice stops at the removal of adverbs. Personally, I can’t stand adverbs. They’re weak and feeble, and nine times out of ten, changing an adverb to a stronger verb results in tighter, more descriptive prose. While there are some occasions in which an adverb simply is the best choice – “dimly lit passages” for example – it’s often better to cut them out. “He walked quickly” does the job, but “He hurried” really gives us a feeling of purpose, and of speed. Cutting adverbs can also cut your word count, which is handy if your writing is on the verbose side.

This is all well and good, and I think the removal of adverbs is a strong step towards tightening up your prose. Having said that, I think writers can be brave and go one step further, and remove some of the weakest verbs of all. Yes, that’s right, I said verbs. I’m talking about “was” and “had been”.

The English language is a rich and beautiful thing indeed. It also boasts a mind-boggling range of words, so why would you choose to tell your readers that your character “was standing beneath a dripping roof” when you could simply say they “stood”? “Was” slows down your writing, and weakens your descriptions. “I was walking” sounds pitiful compared to “I strode” or even just “I walked”. Almost worse is telling me what your character “had been” doing. Why don’t you tell me what they did?

I freely put my hand up and admit that I used to commit these very offences against English. It never struck me how limp they are until a published writer spotted my work on a writing website, and took me to one side to explain these very points that I dispense to you now. At first, I took the criticism badly, thinking there was nothing wrong with how I wrote. Another writer told me to take the advice on board and to just give it a go – this writer wouldn’t have taken the time to correct me if he hadn’t seen potential in my work.

I’d been submitting a particular story to various magazines and websites, with no success. I felt proud of the work, and wanted to place it somewhere to ‘validate’ that pride. Naturally it hurt that it kept getting rejected, so I saved a new copy of it, and I made my way through the prose. There are some occasions where “was” or “had been” are the best way to phrase something, but I managed to write cut most mentions of either phrase. When I resubmitted it, the story got accepted, and ended up being published online. The editor even commented on the strength of the prose, something it lack previously.

Now I want to pass on the tips so others can have success with their work. Don’t tell me that “he was walking down the street. It was raining heavily.” Tell me that “he hurried down the rain-lashed street.”

You can do it.

Icy can often be found lurking on Twitter when she should really be working on her action/thriller/vaguely steampunk serial, The First Tale.

Her other ramblings or flash fictions are on her blog.

  1. adampb permalink
    August 8, 2010 2:54 am

    Thanks for the handy hints, Icy. Good to read some practical advice about the rules of writing and why they are there. I’ll be going back to my own work now to see how often I use these idioms (and to cut them out).

  2. August 8, 2010 5:25 am

    Glad to help, Adam! I remember being rather resistant to it at first, but now I always bear it in mind.

  3. August 8, 2010 4:51 pm

    Any form of “to be” is bound to show up in my drafts. Thanks for the reminder to be extra vigilant about finding better words when I’m revising.

  4. August 8, 2010 10:15 pm

    Excellent advice!
    It’s funny that you mention this, though. I’m currently working on fixing the “was” and “have been” problem in my book. Half way through my editing someone told me that my prose could improve with other verbs.

  5. August 9, 2010 7:56 am

    It’s a tricky one because sometimes ‘was’ and ‘had been’ really are the best ways to phrase things, particularly where dialogue is concerned. But I’m glad to be of some assistance!

  6. August 9, 2010 4:57 pm

    Ah, passive voice – the scourge of fiction and the necessary evil of the legal trade. It’s the thing I have the greatest difficulty in removing, as I have almost 10 years of using it ingrained in me, so it feels natural!

  7. August 9, 2010 6:16 pm

    Another red-flag verb along with “was” is “felt” when used with an emotion.

    Then again, there are authors who use ‘was’ frequently and effectively. Lee Child and Michael Connelly come to mind.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

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