Thursday, January 24, 2008

Editing your work: the power of verbs


Editing your work: the power of verbs


Jakarta – “Omit needless words,” advise William Strunk and E.B. White in their classic, The Elements of Style. Practicing what they speak, their textbook floats in at a mere 105 pages.

Deleting words, sentences and entire passages from your writing requires a hard to come by ruthlessness. After all, we, when writing, often become fond of what we have laid down and fall in love with our work. It happens to all of us.

The ability to look at sentences analytically is the key to being able to edit and liven up your own work. In order to do this, you need to understand the building blocks that make up a sentence. Its two main parts are the subject, the sentence’s who or what, and the verb, the sentence’s action or state of being.

Although subjects normally come before verbs as in Mom cooked and The sun rises, it is the verbs that give life to your writing. The grammatical subject of a sentence is often times different than the topic of discussion. Look at this sentence, She likes cereal more than eggs. What is the subject? What is the topic under discussion? Are they the same or different? If different, which is more important?

By asking these questions you see that the topic of breakfast foods is more important to the sentence than the grammatical subject, she.

The use of weak verbs produces limp, lifeless copy, while, conversely, active verbs give writing strength and confidence. Weak verbs are those which do not show action such as seem, be, remain, feel, appear along with passive forms, made up of the verb to be plus a past participle: for example, was stolen and has been bitten. The more weak verbs your writing contains, the more tiresome your writing most likely is.

When rereading and editing your work, look for weak verbs. When you find one, ask yourself what the sentence’s action is and then try to express that action as a verb.

Find the weak verbs in this sentence about expensive restaurants, These more expensive, less popular restaurants, whose lack of success was often the result of how expensive they were, are likely to go bankrupt.

The verbs of the rambling sentence are all or contain forms of the verb to be. Let us strengthen it by putting the action into verbs where we can. Here we go, Since these restaurants charge more, they are not popular and may go bankrupt.

Although we still have a single form of to be, this example is stronger for two reasons. First, the second sentence is much easier to understand and secondly, it is half the length of the first sentence. Remember, concise writing is powerful writing.

Consider this copy about a fictional project,

Though the canal ferries will be owned by the neighborhoods that they operate within, they will be operated by members of Jakarta’s Venice Project Association and partially supported by funds raised by the group. The remainder of the funds is to be provided by the city.

The wordiness of this 46-word example results from the many uses of the passive voice. Once you make the verbs active you end up with this tighter 25-word example,

The neighborhoods will own the canal ferries while Jakarta’s Venice Project Association will operate them. Both the association and the city will fund the ferries.

Now that we have shown that we must always be aware of weak verbs, we need to recognize that all to be forms and all passive verbs do not need to be kicked out of our writing. After all, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” is tough to improve upon. Weak verbs do have their place. We just need to ask ourselves the right questions during the editing process to ensure that they belong in ours.

Happy editing,


This article was originally published Jan. 13, 2008 in The Jakarta Post.

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