Tag Archives | strong verbs

Tips on Writing: Quick Fixes for Passive Voice

In order to be a good writer, you must avoid passive voice whenever possible.

Yawn.  Lion_yawn_namibia_13413_h

This topic has all the excitement of a rainy day in January. 

But, the thing is, it's true.  Passive voice can sink a sentence faster than the Titanic.  Okay, okay, I'll quit with the metaphors that are as dumb as a rock.  Sorry, I'll stop now.  Really.  Back to passive voice.

Because, if your writing is laden with passive sentences and phrases it will be boring.  Dull.  Flat.  Lifeless.  And you don't want that, now, do you?

Many, many, many, many, many years ago I wanted to apply to journalism school at the University of Oregon and in order to do that one had to take an infamous class called J250.  It was infamous because it was hard, purposely so, in order to weed out those who might not be completely, totally, one hundred per cent devoted to the journalistic ideal.    One of the best things I got from that class was a book called The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne.  Lucile absolutely rails on passive voice, and ever since reading her chapter on it, I've been a demon about it, too. (For the record, Lucile has her own, slightly perplexing Facebook page.)

Here's Lucile on passive voice: 

The English language has two voices–active voice and passive voice.  These terms refer to the use of verbs.  Most verbs can be active or passive, depending upon how you use them.  Active voice is direct, vigorous, strong; passive voice is indirect, limp, weak–and sneaky.  It can creep unnoticed into your writing unless you are on guard against it constantly and consciously.

As Lucile goes on to point out, the difference between passive and active is essentially the difference between your subject acting, and the subject having something done to it.  So,

Active: Peter mowed the lawn.

Passive: The lawn was mowed by Peter.

Passive voice tends to creep into business and technical and other official type language, but it can easily appear in your writing, too.  So here is my handy-dandy quick guide to ditching it:

1. Make the subject perform, rather than have something performed upon him.  That sounds vaguely kinky, but its an important point.  If you fear you've constructed a passive sentence, ask yourself if the subject of said sentence is doing something, or having something done to him.

2. Choose strong and interesting verbs.  As you can see in the above example, passive voice often arises when you use variants of the verb to be.  As in, Mary was at the store.  Or, Tom was reading a book.  When you force yourself to work a bit harder and push for stronger verbs you just about always sidestep passive voice.  So, Mary trudged to the store.  Or, Tom devoured a book.  It is impossible to eradicate all forms of the to be verb, but do your best to minimize how much you use it.

3. Avoid the gerund verb form.   This is, of course, the "ing" usage of a verb.  I could not find any good explanation of the "ing" form which wasn't hopelessly complicated.  The way I think of it is that it tends to denote action occurring over time, such as, I was eating the cake.  This is less direct and snappy than I ate the cake. 

(Note to purists: yes, I know that sometimes gerunds are not gerunds but past participles or some damn thing, but trying to figure out the nuances of all that is about to make my head explode and the point here is to provide quick, let me repeat, quick fixes for passive voice.)

If you keep those three tips in mind as you write, you'll conquer passive voice.  But, I hear you ask, is there ever a time when passive voice is appropriate?  Why, yes.  Once in a great while you may want to use it for an artful reason, such as to denote that the character about whom you are writing is a passive type.  Or, as our friend Lucile says, "Sometimes only passive voice can provide a neccessary tone or connotation.  It is possible for a verb to be too brisk, too energetic, to express accurately an exact shade of meaning."

So there you have it, writing tips for the scourge of passive voice.  Now, tell me.  Do you struggle with passive writing? Or is it something you've learned to master?

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Photo by yaaaay, from Everystockphoto.

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How to Ferret Out Strong Verbs and Other Good Words, Part Two

Big Word Hunting, Part Two: The Thesaurus as Roget Intended It  Roget

(This series began yesterday with a post on Strong Verbs)

Since I have become a big game verb hunter, I have remembered how much I adore my thesaurus.  It is Roget's International Thesaurus,
with a copyright of 1977, and I have no idea where I got it.  I do know
it would be one of the first things I'd grab in a fire, (except that I
once did escape a house on fire and believe me, the only thing you
think about saving is things that are alive–kids and pets, so nix
that).

The "How To Use This Book" note in front of the thesaurus says that
this particular version is a "theme" thesaurus.    Short version, this
means its not arranged in traditional dictionary form.  Rather, the
words are grouped in categories, according to themes, with an index in
the back.  This is the thesaurus as Roget intended it.

This is the only type of thesaurus a writer should have. 
Why?  Because a word-loving writer could get lost in the pages of this
kind of thesaurus.  A writer could glean all the ideas she ever needed
from perusing the pages of the International Thesaurus.  A writer,
given that he had overcome laziness, and fear of not being able to find
good verbs, can find a cool word for every thought he's ever had in
this book.

For instance, randomly open the index section and spy the word,
"burning."  Beneath it are all the possible permutations of that word,
starting with nouns such as capital punishment, combustion, cremation,
heat, pain.  We've not even gotten into the verbs yet, which include
angry, colorful, eloquent, excited, feverish, flashing, and more.  AND,
we've not even turned to the actual thesaurus section yet–this is just
the index.  Choose, say, flashing, and you're directed to section
335.34, from which you can glean a whole paragraph of synonyms, such as
flashy, blazing, flaming, flaring…and so on.  In case none of these
suit you, the mother section 335 consists of 42 segments having to do
with light.  

Oh, the glory of it all: words tumble over each to attract your attention on the page!  But now what to do with them?  How to remember the perfect verb when it is midnight and you labor to finish your chapter or the article that is due in the morning? 

That, my friends, is the subject of Part Three of our series on Verbs.

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How to Ferret Out Strong Verbs and Other Good Words

Big Word Hunting, Part One: What is a Strong Verb?

Have you ever read a novel and been impressed with the originality of the author's use of verbs?  One of the hallmarks of good fiction is the use of strong, original verbs.  Yet how does one go about finding these verbs when our daily lives are most often assaulted with weak variations of "to be" from every angle?  When I read a novel full of good verbs I sigh heavily and lament that I am not a good verb finder.

But of late I have deduced that my inability to find good verbs is a result of laziness.  I hate when that happens and I discover that something I thought was a congenital trait is actually because I am slothful.

Why laziness?  Because it takes more effort to pull out the thesaurus and look up a word then it does to hit Shift F7 and use the lame Word synonym finder.  And because it takes consistent exertion to look for verbs in your daily travels and readings, and most important, when you find them, write them down.  It takes energy to drag yourself out of the rut of using plain, ordinary words and passive verbs.

Perhaps at this point you might be asking, what, exactly is a strong verb?  Let us take a look:

  • All variants of the verb to be are weak verbs.  (Sorry, to be it is a harsh judgment, but it must be said.)  Poor old to be is so over-used that it does not pull up any fresh imagery (or any image at all).  To be is the work horse of the verb world, and work horses age early and get tired and sick and feeble. So send your to bes out to pasture and find some young fresh fillies, or colts if you prefer.
  • Verbs with an ing ending are weak verbs.  Yes, I know, the justification for using the ing ending is that it indicates time passing.  Such as "I was reading while I waited for the train."  However, a simple ed ending accomplishes the same thing in a crisper fashion:  "I read while I waited for the train."  I have a tragic propensity to fall in love with ing endings and so once in awhile, I must whip myself soundly and rid my manuscript of as many of them as possible.  Put those ing endings out in the back 40 with the workhorse to bes, where they can have AARP parties together.
  • Verbs based on nouns are strong verbs.  A fun verb exercise is to sit in a room, look around and start naming every noun you see.  What you'll discover is that many of our most beloved verbs are based on nouns. And in the process of turning nouns into verbs, you might stretch your mind a bit to discover some hot new verbs. 
  • Strong verbs stand alone, on their own two feet.  They don't need helpers like had, or would, or any other words that exist mostly to suck up to the handsome strong verbs.  For instance, "The policeman had run so fast he was out of breath."  How about "The policeman ran so fast he was out of breath," instead?  You get the gist.  Banish the helper verbs.  They can rent the room next to the AARP verbs and hold a wake for themselves.

In part two of this diatribe series on verbs, coming tomorrow, God and goddess willing, we will discuss the wonders of the thesaurus.  Until then, have a look at your current writing project.  What kinds of verbs do you see?

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