Make verbs work harder to strengthen your writing

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How can we make verbs work harder for us?

Writers are often told: ‘get rid of was’, and ‘ban -ing words’ when talking about verbs. We must be sure to banish all words ending with -ly: those related abominations called adverbs. No place for adverbs here, please. What’s the rationale behind these injunctions and are they black and white?

Consider these examples

A. The book was read by her mother vs Her mother read the book.
B. He was gazing about vs He gazed about.
C. He read the book quickly vs He devoured the book.
D. He looked at her hungrily vs He stared at her like a famished man faced with chocolate cake. (I know – I wanted to make you laugh.)

In each case, both sentences are grammatically correct. However, do I need to automatically obliterate the first sentence because it contains ‘was’, -ing’ or ‘-ly’? And if so, why? How do I make the verbs work harder?
Let’s take them in order.

A. The book was read by her mother vs Her mother read the book.

The first sentence is an example of passive voice, where the object of the sentence (the book) was acted upon (read) by the subject (the mother). The second is active voice: subject – action – object. The first is awkward to read. The second is clear, concise, and therefore stronger.
This is why we avoid passive voice.  Active voice allows the reader to move along without having to think much about the actual words. Writing which mostly uses active voice will be described by readers as ‘pacy’ and ‘fast-moving’ because the words flow into their minds with little effort.
It’s especially important to use active voice in scenes of high drama, conflict or packed action, to maintain a sense of urgency. If we want to be more relaxed, or cut to a slower pace to give the reader a rest, passive voice may do the trick. Use it sparingly though.

B. He was gazing about vs He gazed about.

The first sentence is an example of past continuous tense, that is, the action kept happening until something interrupted it. The second is simple past tense. As such, they don’t carry the same meaning. With the first, I feel the need to add to it:
‘He was gazing about when the door flew open.’
‘He gazed about when the door flew open’ is grammatical but not the same meaning. Also he is unlikely to ‘gaze’ when this happens!

Writers need to decide what we mean in this case, and what is the event which will stop the gazing about. Simply replacing ‘was gazing’ with ‘gazed’ doesn’t work.
You can, however, turn it all into active voice and make it even stronger.
‘He gazed about. Did that door lead anywhere? The door flew open.’

C. He read the book quickly vs He devoured the book.

The dreaded adverb.
Others no doubt understand this already, but I had a Damascene moment listening to an editing webinar where the speaker said two things, as separate issues:
1. get rid of adverbs and 2. use stronger verbs.
It occurred to me these aren’t separate issues. In the example above, ‘read … quickly’ is replaced by one word, ‘devoured’. Someone can read a book quickly for different reasons. It might be a time issue, or the book is boring so they skim it, or because they adore it.
Which one do we mean here? I chose ‘devoured’ because it carries connotations of total absorption, unable to put the book down, and that is what I wanted the reader to understand.
By using meaningful verbs instead of generic verbs which need to be given life by adverbs, we give our sentences clarity and ‘punch’. Here’s my top secret tip about how to achieve this: the thesaurus is your friend. Use it unashamedly!

D. He looked at her hungrily vs He stared at her like a famished man faced with chocolate cake.

Here we have another generic verb and an adverb, this time replaced by a simile. I love a simile, a metaphor too. They enrich our writing, paint pictures in readers’ imaginations.

Sometimes though, a well-defined adverb might be far better, crisper, than a simile, especially a long and clumsy one.
‘He looked at her hungrily’ works well as far as I’m concerned. Context will tell the reader whether this was the wolf conveying his intentions towards Red Riding Hood, or an infatuated lover. Either way, a well chosen adverb can on occasion do the trick.


Avoid passive voice.
Don’t automatically replace past continuous with past tense without being sure of your meaning.
Replace a weak verb which has to be propped up by an adverb with a stronger verb, thus getting rid of the need for the adverb.
Sometimes an adverb can work – be sparing though and find a strong one

Happy writing!

For more writing tips search Writing Tips in the categories for this blog.

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