Improve Your Writing: Verbal Abuse

Years ago, I was chatting with an English teacher, who told me he had warned his students, “If you use a passive verb, it’s an automatic ‘D.'”
I replied, “Congratulations. You would almost fail most of the great writers I know.” For example:

James Joyce: “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.” The Dubliners.

Joseph Conrad: “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.” Lord Jim

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The large room was full of people. One of the girls in yellow was playing the piano, and beside her stood a tall, red-haired young lady from a famous chorus, engaged in song.” The Great Gatsby

Herman Melville: “Upon searching, it was found that he casks last struck into the hold were perfectly sound.” Moby Dick

Even Ernest Hemingway: “Catherine Barkley was greatly liked by the nurses because she would do night duty indefinitely.” A Farewell to Arms

One of the most powerful opening lines for a breaking news story in the history of American newspaper journalism was four words long, and one of those words was a passive verb: The President is dead.

So, rules exist, but exceptions to the rules exist as well, and the trick is knowing when and how to break the rules. Speaking of which, here are a few rules:

Eliminate unnecessary passive verbs

weak: He is a banjo player.

strong: He plays the banjo.

weak: The squirrel was run over by the garbage truck.

strong: The garbage truck ran over the squirrel.

stronger: (although a bit insensitive, especially if you’re a squirrel): The garbage truck pancaked the squirrel.

Use specific verbs

• get | grab

• put | plop

• talk | jabber

• walk | traipse

• look | glare

• carry | lug

Eliminate unnecessary adverbs

• walk slowly | slog

• talk quickly | jabber

• write messily | scribble

• pull aggressively | pluck

Eliminate “ing” verb phrases

weak: The band will be performing Friday.

strong: The band will perform Friday.

weak: The volleyball team will be competing in the Midwest regional tournament.

strong: The volleyball team will compete in the Midwest regional tournament.

Eliminate verbs disguised as nouns

• secured an acquisition | acquired

• had an admiration of | admired

• in anticipation of | anticipated

• made a projection of | projected

weak: The car wreck provided her the motivation she needed to stop drinking.

strong: The car wreck motivated her to stop drinking.