From Inert to Propulsive

Everyone knows you need active verbs in your prose. The new take I have to offer is where to find these verbs within your present text. When I am line editing, I often grab words used as other parts of speech in a sentence and convert them into verbs. I am surprised, in fact, by how often a fine active verb is waiting right there to be plucked.

All writers face the same problem. Readers must traverse your written page, and you need vehicles that transport them forward. If a sentence is not propelled forward by a verb, all your brilliant word choices otherwise might as well be gilded bowling pins. They will stand like posts, inert, waiting for the electric clap of movement.

The most common obstacle to good writing is passive sentence construction. If a sentence starts with “There is” or “It is,” you immediately need to take a second look at it. The usage stems from the way we talk, because it serves as a way to lead into a new topic.

One useful trick is to look for the most distinctive word in a passive sentence. It can be a noun, adjective, or adverb. One common culprit is a word ending in –tion or –ment. Let’s take: “There is true enjoyment in humming on the way to work.” Simply strip off the suffix and make that the verb. “I have found I truly enjoy humming on the way to work.”

Another simple fix is eliminating the “there is” clause from a sentence and forcing yourself to supply an active verb. For example: “In the search material there is a number of such letters from other women similar to this one.” If the “there is” comes out, “material” must become a noun. Therefore you get: “The search material contains a number of such letters from other women similar to this one.” Such a change entails no profound spurt of creative energy. You’re merely making sure that the sentence is moving forward.

These micro decisions are not earth-shaking. When making each change, you don’t feel like you’ve made much of a difference. Yet in the aggregate, adding up dozens or even hundreds of such changes, you’ve ensured all those times that the reader makes progress in your narrative. So they appreciate all the more when you produce that metaphor or dazzling turn of phrase. They've come to expect it of such a careful writer.

Exercise: You should be on the constant lookout for the combination of “it is” and “that” in a sentence. For example: “It was at that moment that Lorraine realized she was in this all alone.” Cut out the three extra words and you get: “At that moment Lorraine realized she was in this all alone.” You’ve not only made the sentence more active, you’ve pruned extra verbiage as well.

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
—Truman Capote

Copyright @ 2019 John Paine

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