Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Verbs

I know I know. V is for Verbs is not very original when it comes to the A to Zs of editing and revisions. Still, it's way too important to skip. In fact, the way I think of verbs in edits is sort of a massive category, so we'll have to see how much ground I can cover. I think to keep things... relatable, I'm going to do this by function - according to my convoluted thinking, at least.

Firstly, verbs indicate action. Actions by your character, actions to your character. Yes people, I'm talking about active vs. passive sentences. Far be it from me to say that passive tense must NEVER be included anywhere in a story. (I guess I should have mentioned with every post that nothing is written in stone... oops.) But. Too much passive tense will have the reader wondering why they're rooting for a hero that lets the universe randomly do stuff to him when the baddie is out there doing things. If you read through your work and notice too many: "Something WAS done BY someone/something else." sentences, you might want to work on getting more active tense in. Remember: put the emphasis on the most important thing. More often than not, that will be your characters. So put them first in the sentence.

No. I am not saying "'was' is evil and should die a slow death". In fact, ask my CPs. I adore "was" in all its forms. But verbs also describe actions. And sadly, "was" is... somewhat generic. As are verbs like: look, walk, have, say and so on. Yes, these verbs tell us what someone is doing, but are they telling us how? No. And that's why adverbs sneak into writing, because suddenly they're necessary to describe how the character is doing something. Do you say something angrily? No. You grind it out between your teeth. Do you walk insolently? No... you saunter. So make sure as many verbs as possible carry enough weight to describe as well. Get it? Got it? Good. Next. (Notice: I'm not saying adverbs are evil.)

Next, verbs can indicate time. Yep... There is more than one way to use a past tense. So if your story is written in past tense, make sure that things happening before the exact point in your story are referred to in past perfect. I.e. not "I ate" but "I had eaten." Or better. "I had munched." if that's exactly what your character did. There are many other little changes that happen when characters or narration have to refer to something happening in the past, so I strongly suggest that you familiarize yourself with them when editing.

In addition, verbs agree with their subjects. So no "He say's" or "They does's" unless it's in dialogue or you're going for a specific flavor in your narrative.

Verbs also lend meaning to a sentence. So sometimes, the way you use a verb can change what a sentence means. For example: "I remembered to do my homework." and "I remembered doing my homework." Yes, they might look like they mean the same thing, but depending on context, the first implies that the homework isn't done, while the second implies that it was done (possibly at some point in the more distant past). This can depend on context and feel a lot, so keep an eye out.

Finally, verbs can indicate things happening at the same time. "Doing one thing, he did another." Nothing wrong with that, but I find that sentence structure addictive. It's a lazy way to show things happening at the same time. As supposed to being more inventive. So... those sentences can riddle a writer's works like weeds. Another one (and I've heard that it can be a red flag for agents) is when a writer indicates two things occurring at the same time, when they're physically impossible. "Standing with his cup of coffee, he sat down." or "Driving home, he got out of the car." Those ones, you have to look out for, because they're incredibly annoying to read.

Look Out for These:

1) Generic verbs and repetition that lessens the depth of your words.  

2) Passive tense and gerunds changing the meaning of a sentence or story.

3) Tenses and concurrent happenings that don't make sense.

What is your vice when it comes to verbs?


  1. Great and helpful points! Learning new language has made me very away of verbs and conjugations. Bonnce chance with the remaining days of the A to Z!

  2. Hopefully those are the things that jump out at me after I've put aside my WIP for a week or so. I'm not sure what my vice is, but I'm definitely going to find out!

  3. Great points. When I write my first draft, I use was. When I go back and edit, I have Word hi-lite all was' and writer better.

  4. I tend to use a lot of passive verbs. My critique group helps me out with this.

  5. Excellent post. Verbs are way too important to forget. They're what moves your story forward!

  6. Good advice - power verbs can make writing so much more compelling!

  7. Hi Misha, sorry I haven't been by for awhile, been busy as you would be aware, getting through the seemingly endless A-Z list, among a million other things.

    You have some very deep thoughts on verbs. I like to think more simply by categorizing them into Action Verbs, Linking Verbs and Helping Verbs. But,one must remember that 'to be' is both a Helping and a Linking Verb!

    Enjoy the rest of the A-Z! (Note to you - I am over the half way mark)

  8. A couple of years back I attended a workshop where verb usage was discussed, and a lightbulb turned on for me. What a change it made. I still insert horridly dull verbs, but often now find myself returning to replace them. Your A to Z blogs have been very helpful!

  9. Was is definitely a weakness for me. But I do the opposite: instead of using it when necessary, I do everything possible NOT to use it, making my sentences horrid.

  10. I used to use "was" too much. Fixed that. Mostly.


  11. Having knowledge over verbs is really important before writing a book... thanks a ton for sharing the same with us


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