Bro, Do You Even Verb?

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Few people stop to consider the verbs they use. Many content themselves just knowing what a verb is, no mean feat in today’s fragment-tweeting climate. But strong, active verbs cause writing to stand out. It causes fiction authors to hook more readers, students to impress more professors (who will be less likely to scrutinize an essay’s content), and so on. The weakest verbs out there express the passive act of existence. To be verbs, as they’re called, include the forms is, are, was, being, been, and be and often hide in the contractions I’m, we’re, and they’re. It’s impossible to avoid these verbs completely (I finally succumbed to one in this sentence). Avoiding them for too long sounds awkward, but the best writing shows moderation. If you remain unconvinced, consider this paragraph with nothing but to be verbs:

It is a fact that few people stop to consider the verbs they use. Many are simply proud to know what a verb is, which is no mean feat in today’s fragment-tweeting climate. But strong, active verbs are what cause writing to stand out. It is what causes fiction authors to hook more readers, students to impress more professors (who will be less likely to scrutinize an essay’s content), and so on. The weakest verbs out there are the ones that express the utterly passive act of existence. To be verbs are is, are, was, being, been, and be and often hide in the contractions I’m, we’re, and they’re. Only the novice uses these verbs all of the time (See what a breath of fresh air that was?). Using them for too long in succession is awkward, but moderation is the key. So now you’re convinced of the importance of strong verbs.

You’ll notice that the sentence structure had to be changed in places to accommodate the to-be verbs. Since the use of these verbs requires extra work, people naturally opt for more active ones, right? Sadly, as a writing professor, I’m sad to say the opposite is true. For whatever reason, first drafts come in riddled with long, awkward to be structures. A forced sense of formality causes students to write differently than they speak or think. Don’t worry, though; the problem is easily remedied. After bringing verb choice to a student’s attention, the second draft shows vast improvement. So if you read this and think you’ll never get the hang of strong verbs, don’t despair! Start slow. Take time to read over what you write a second or third time. Whether it’s a story, a blog post, or even a tweet, you’ll notice a big difference in how your writing is received.

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