Monday, September 26, 2011

Use of Verb Hierarchy

One of the best things we can do to improve our writing is focus on verb choice. My sophomore English teacher, Mr. Binder at San Luis Obispo High School, did something that changed my view of verbs forever. He made us write twenty-one, one-to-two page "treatments" on various senses. First the basic ones like seeing, smelling, etc... Then we got into more complicated ones, like irony. The big deal with these activities, though, was that we couldn't use any "to be" conjugations.

This set me on the road to stronger writing. Throughout my writing career, I've tried to write entire short stories without any use of "to be." "To Wade Alone" started off like that, seven pages without a "to be" conjugation. This allowed me, in later edits, to be lazy, using weak verbs to fill in based on what the eiditor wanted.

So today, I'm going to go over the best ways to write sentences as dictated by verb choice. I'm going to start with the worst and work up to the best.

  1. Weak verbs. What are weak verbs? Weak verbs are verbs that need a state-of-being descriptor after them to make sense. "I feel angry." Feel is weak because it wouldn't make any sense without angry behind it. The worst weak verb to use is... You guessed it, any form of "to be." "I was happy" shows me nothing as a reader. What does happy look like to you? It's different for everyone, so we need to use active verbs to show rather than tell emotion. Not only that, but "to be" can be used for so many things -- I even just did it there -- that it's easy to overuse it in a paragraph. I've even read professional writers that have it ten or more times in one paragraph. Oi! Some other weak verbs in certain situations are seems and looks. Writers should avoid these whenever possible.
  2. Passive verb construction. This is, essentially, when the subject of the sentence receives the action rather than performs the action. This construction often utilizes a "to be" conjugation as well, but it can also use "got," which I don't think it technically correct. For instance, "She was hit by the ball" or "She got hit by the ball." The ball does the hitting; it is the active participant in the interaction. She is passive, because she let herself get hit by the ball, but she is, nevertheless, the subject of the sentence. Passive construction works in some cases, like if who or what did the action is unimportant, or in business letters when we don't want to point fingers. "The door was left unlocked at closing yesterday" would sound more polite than "Whoever closed up last night left the door unlocked." However, in creative or fiction writing, we want to try to avoid the use of passive constructions because they tend toward wordiness. Back to the original example: "The ball hit her" uses less words and is active.
  3. Ho-hum but active nonetheless verb choice. Run, jump, play, look... These verbs make me sigh. We use them way too much. I'm even guilty of it. And adding an -ly adverb to them doesn't make things better. Just...wordier. In this case, we need to head to the thesaurus. Find synonyms with the right denotation or connotation. Use a more specific, rarer verb instead.
  4. Active, vibrant verb choice. This is the highest realm verb use. We need to shoot for this. This is choosing "sprint" instead of "run" or "purloined" instead of "stole." If you put yourself in the right frame of mind when you write, you can garner great satisfaction from picking the right words. Not only that, but your writing will improve immensely.
She was hit by the ball, and she was angry.
The ball sailed across the arch of heaven on a direct collision course with her head. The entire crowd heard the crack of rawhide to skull. She fell to the dust, tears already springing forth. By the time the coach arrived to check on her, her cheeks burned red, and her eyes had narrowed to determined slits. "I'll get them for this," she muttered. 

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