All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Sometimes A Verb Is Just A Verb

For all of the talk I do about the broad process of writing and creativity, a few people have noted that I sure do go on a lot about grammar and punctuation. I will confess that I do take a side in the war on adverbs, I have a strong opinion on the Oxford Comma, and don't get me started about descriptions. And yes, when it comes to verbs - particularly passive versus active - most people know I plant my flag on the active verb camp. However, I do try to remind people that before they read a thesaurus and discover a whole bunch of synonyms to replace the verb in, "he said," take a pause. Sometimes, a verb doesn't need to be anything fancy.

Elmore Leonard famously put amongst his 10 Rules for Good Writing, "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." (He also was strongly against using adverbs to modify "said," but that's another discussion.) Whether you agree with this or not is up to you. His point was to keep things simple and to the point. When a person is talking, they say things. Let them say them and get on with the story. Personally, I allow myself a little freedom in this vein. When my characters yell at each other, or whisper secrets, or stutter or are hesitant, I let the reader know this if it's relevant to the story. If they are whispering things to each other so nobody hears them, and, in fact, nobody hears them, it's really not that important. However, if someone yells across a room that his girlfriend's pregnant and she didn't want anyone to know yet, then yelling reminds the reader that literally everyone heard it. The verb choice does have a role, but don't let the search for the perfect one get you bogged down.

Another thing I go on about is not using the word "was" (the passive voice) in sentences where an active verb would also work. This is the example I cite:

  • "As he was walking home..." (passive)
  • "As he walked home..." (active)

Active is the better choice a lot of times because it is the more engaging voice. Usually we talk in the passive voice, which makes it a little difficult to adjust our writing to the active voice. However, we don't need to do this all the time. Here's some simple sentences: "It was a pleasant day, just like any other." "The door was red with old bronze hinges." "He was the last member of his family line." Can you think of a way to make these sentences more engaging? Possibly, but why? They are descriptions - let them describe the thing and move on. Now, if the object is doing something, that's an opportunity to be active. "The red door was swinging wildly in the wind, straining its old bronze hinges." In that case, change "was swinging" to "swung" and you're active. Otherwise, let the pleasant day, the red door, and the guy with the family line issues just go about their business.

Lastly, a little repetition is okay throughout your work. Like using, "said," people will also walk and run, they will sleep, chew, sneeze, and so forth. If it's a basic activity, just let it happen. Don't feel a person running down the street has to bolt down the sidewalk, dart into an alley, streak along its narrow pavement, and dash into a causeway. Instead, just run down the sidewalk, into the alley along its narrow pavement and into a causeway. It's to the point, so let the verb make the point.

And to go back to Elmore Leonard, just make sure it feels natural. His other rule aside from the 10 linked above is, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."             

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