Part 3 of a 3–part Series
by D. L. Mackenzie
In the previous installment, we discussed replacing weak verbs with accurately expressive alternatives. But what about those verbs that are so weak they’re almost invisible? Like prepositions and indefinite articles, they seem to be necessary – if unremarkable – words which cannot be removed without making nonsense of our writing.
Five of these words are verbs, two are adverbs, and all of them are about as expressive as a semicolon. Let’s start with the verbs, which I have dubbed The Feeble Five: have, be, get, look, and seem.
Weak verbs abound, but have, be, get, look, and seem are five of the frailest. I am not suggesting that you expunge your writing of all of these words, for they all have their place and proper usage and often no substitute will suffice. Nevertheless, I do suggest you examine your sentences for an over-reliance on these often needless “crutch” verbs.
I have an idea. Try to restrict your usage of the word “have” (and its variants “has” and “had”) to their grammatical function in the various “perfect” tenses (for example, “I will have read what you have written”). Rather than using “have” as a synonym for “possess,” use a more descriptive verb instead whenever possible.
For example, “the intruder had a gun.” What does this mean? We know the intruder has possessed a gun at one time or another, but little more. Perhaps he used to own a gun but he traded it for a scooter. Perhaps he still owns it but left it in his other pants, or possibly it fell into a storm sewer somewhere along the way. Assuming our intruder still owns his gun and demonstrates the foresight to bring it along, what does he do with it? Does he conceal it or brandish it? Does he wave it around or take careful aim?
Don’t be a winner–win! Don’t be worried–worry! Don’t be all that you can be–fulfill your potential! In other words, don’t use “be” merely to attribute a characteristic if another verb will convey the idea better. Now, Shakespeare dazzled with “to be, or not to be?” but remember that Hamlet was contemplating suicide, and “be” was used as a synonym for “exist,” not to ascribe an attribute. Hamlet didn’t ask, “to be alive, or not to be alive?”
For an action word, “get” is a bit sluggish, don’t you think? As a synonym for “obtain,” “get” is often a lackluster substitute for more precise or descriptive verbs. As a synonym for the doddering “become,” “get” likewise doesn’t convey much action at all on its own. Why get tired of something when you can simply tire of it? Why get rid of something when you can simply rid yourself of it? Why get started when you can simply start?
She looked sad. She looked dejected. She looked forlorn. She looked defeated. Well, perhaps she might cheer up a bit if we trouble ourselves to describe her manner and expression rather than trivializing her fragile emotional state with another glib look-plus-adjective phrase. Is she crying? Are her eyes red and puffy? Is her head bowed, her shoulders slumped and trembling as she sniffles and sobs into her handkerchief? If we can accurately describe what we see in our mind’s eye, the reader will certainly get the picture.
As with “look,” “seem” blunts the impact of adjectives and muddles their meaning. It’s another way of telling instead of showing, which is always bad form. “She seemed angry” shows us almost nothing and and doesn’t even tell us that much. Was she shouting and shaking her fists or pacing and gritting her teeth in silence? The most regrettable characteristic of the seem-plus-adjective construction is its ambiguity, however. If a character only seems angry, your reader may be justified in thinking that she really isn’t angry but rather just seems that way.
“His head literally exploded!” No, it didn’t. It may have figuratively exploded, but chances are it didn’t literally explode. Over time, “literally” has taken on a meaning which is the precise opposite of what it really means. This usage of “literally” may work in dialogue because many people do use it that way, as a shorter form of “he was so angry his head exploded, although it didn’t really explode of course, because that can’t happen, but if I say ‘literally’ you’ll get the idea that he was super-duper angry.” In the end, using “literally” to modify a verb is not only imprecise, it blunts the impact of most verbs nearly as much as the A-word.
“His head almost exploded!” Using the word “almost” as a verb modifier is just one notch worse than “literally.” Saying that his head almost exploded is short for “he was so angry his head nearly exploded, although it couldn’t really explode of course, because that can’t happen, and in fact it didn’t happen, but I got to use the word ‘exploded’ without actually having an explosion and I’m hoping you’ll figure out that this means that he was super-duper angry without me actually describing the scene.”
Contrast this with “she almost didn’t do it,” which means she had misgivings but did eventually come through. Used in this way, “almost” can convey missed opportunity, reluctance, struggle, striving, and potential. Just don’t use it to mean “sort of, but not really.”
Your Verbs, Your Style
It may be difficult to accept, but if you’re trying to develop “your style,” you’re doing it wrong. Your style is already there in your head because that’s where the action is. The writing process is largely the process of envisioning what is happening and then describing it in such a way that the reader “sees” roughly the same thing you see. When you envision everything with clarity and faithfully describe it all with carefully selected words, that is your style.
Read through one of your manuscripts with a critical eye and you’re bound to find vague, ambiguous verbs dressed up with adverbs and adverbial phrases, some of which you may have fallen in love with. Just as an experiment, rewrite a page or two with more descriptive verbs. You’ll notice the purple prose falls away, leaving the raw, unvarnished truth in a tighter, more vigorous narrative. Be true to your narrator’s voice, of course, but remember who’s boss. That is your style.
Consider this an approach to rewriting and self-editing rather than a method of writing, though. Second-guessing yourself as you write and stopping to agonize over every verb will stymie your muse, so get it all written down before picking it apart. But do pick it apart. Rewrite with carefully selected action words. Replace empty verbs that boost word count but add little else. By all means, consult a thesaurus for ideas, but always consult a dictionary to ensure proper usage. Don’t understate, but don’t overstate. Don’t fear ingenuity, but don’t let fear of the commonplace push you into unwise substitutions. Above all, strive for precision and clarity rather than clutter and useless ornamentation. With a fertile imagination and a craftsman-like approach, you can tell your story and express yourself fully and succinctly. And that will be your style.