Nothing can let the air out of a great sentence like a boring, flat verb. Unfortunately, we writers tend to love boring verbs–especially the “being” verbs, and our sentences suffer for it. The best way to fix a flat sentence? Find the boring verbs and eliminate them!
This week, I’m covering a few editing techniques that I use when I write, and all of them concentrate on eliminating overused words. Today, we are discussing verbs. I’ve written before about eliminating boring verbs, and I’ve listed a few of my pet peeves (check out “The Writing Process: Editing for Grammar & Style”). Today, I want to give you my full list of verbs that I personally seek out using Microsoft Word’s Find/Replace function and change. I’ve been using this list for years, and I’ve discovered that the sentences in my stories that sound the most awkward often contain one or more of these words. Coincidence? I think not!
These verbs are on the list because they don’t offer any kind of description or word pictures. These are like the pirate code–more like guidelines, so don’t trouble yourself if you can’t figure out how to change a sentence.
One last thing: Always remember that you shouldn’t worry about changing any of these words if they are part of dialogue. Let your characters talk normally–not like English professors. (My apologies to any English Professors…)
Stupid, Boring Verbs
(Yes, this is the title of my list.)
- Be*: Is/Are/Be/Was/Were/Been/Being
- Go: Go/Goes/Went/Gone/Going
- Put: Put/Puts/Putting
- Do**: Do/Does/Did/Done/Doing
- Come: Come/Comes/Came/Coming
- Have***: Have/Has/Had/Having
- Can: Can/Could/Been able/
- Begin+: Begin/Begins/Began/Begun/Beginning
- Seem+: Seem/Seems/Seemed/Seeming
- Get+: Get/Got/Gotten/Getting
- Become+: Become/Became/Becoming
* Note that being verbs are sometimes necessary. For instance, if your character is jumping, you need the “is”.
**I only eliminate “do’s” when they become the main verb of the sentence rather than a compliment to the main verb.
***Have’s are necessary if you are using them in the plu-perfect tense. They are often overused, however, and I don’t like using them as a form of possession.
+These verbs are fine on occasion. I just happen to use them too much.
Earlier today, I posted the working prologue to the novel I’m currently editing. (Click here to read it.) As promised, I’m including a things I’ve changed in my prologue after searching out these verbs. (Noticed that most of the changes center around the word “was.”)
- “There is still time” changed to “There’s still time” to correct stiff dialogue.
- When I did a search on is, I found this and realized this quote needed a tuneup: “This is mercy. Hiding from la Bête has reduced you to a skinny mass of bones. It’s not good for your health…,” I changed it to “This is mercy. You allowed others to die so you could cling to life, only to be reduced to this.” He prodded Gustav in the ribs with his riffle. “Hiding from la Bête…” I’m still not sure about my addition, but putting something in there will help me later during final edits.
- Sometimes in narrative, you just have to leave in the “was’s.” I try not to do this often, but my “was” search gave me this: “This beast was not a loup garou that many had suspected when the attacks first occurred, nor was it the wrath of God pouring out on Gévaudan as Bishop of Mende had declared. La Bête was real. She was a wolf. And the wolf was dead.” When the being verb is describing something that can’t really be shown or comparing/contrasting something, I will often let it go. I might change these sentences later, but for now, I’m leaving them.
- Passive voice alert! “His knickers buckled under his belt, indicating there was once more of him to clothe.” Changed to, “His knickers, once faced with clothing more of him, now buckled under his belt.” I’m holding onto the idea of “clothing more of him,” but I won’t be surprised if my editor tells me it’s too awkard.
- “His gaunt face was sunken in, making his cheekbones protrude more than normal. His eyes, which should have been alight with celebration, were downtrodden.” I changed it to this: “His gaunt, sunken-in face made his cheekbones protrude more than normal.” I eliminated the second sentence. Given the rest of the paragraph, it was redundant. A savvy reader will already picture downtrodden eyes and will wonder why Gustave is reacting differently than the rest of the crowd.
- “The crowd hung on his words. The wolf hanging before them was no werewolf,…” Two issues with this: 1) the was, and 2) hung & hanging in the same paragraph. Changed to: “The crowd clung to his words. A wolf—not a werewolf—hung before them,…”
- Passive Voice Alert! “Others dismissed the accusations, saying his jail time was due to a prank…” Was is an issue here, as well as “due to” (covered later) which is an annoying way to say because and is also one of my passive voice alert words. Changed to “Others dismissed the accusations, claiming he spent time in jail for a prank…” Note that “spent” is now the main verb instead of “was.”
- “They knew their role by now, as it was Chastel’s fourth retelling.” Changed to: “They had memorized their role by Chastel’s fourth retelling earlier.” Someone will probably tell me this is awkward, but it’s a start.
- “The only thing Gustave felt stronger than guilt was fear.” Oh, the problems with this one. Aside from the “was,” it’s a blah kind of sentence, it feels cliched, and it lacks punch. See what you can catch with a “was” search! Changed to: “Fear—mortal fear—now replaced the guilt that had seeped into Gustave’s bones and eaten through his soul.” Yeah, it’s way dramatic, but I just ate some chocolate, so there…
- “He considered running, but the Marquis was an expert huntsman.” Aside from “was” the sentence never follows through on the idea that the marquis would shoot him… changed to “He considered running, but the marquis kept the rifle aimed at his heart.”
- Passive Voice Alert! “Blood trickled from its abdomen, which had been ripped open,…” changed to “Blood trickled from its abdomen, which the villagers had ripped open…”
- I had been feeling uncomfortable with this: “The rustling in the bushes grew nearer. Gustave fell to his knees in terror the moment the darkened form stepped into the clearing. He heard the marquis’s rifle drop to the ground behind him. This was no bête—no beast. It pounced, and the forest of Ténazeyre echoed with Gustave’s tormented screams.” The “was” alerted me to the paragraph. Ironically, I ended up keeping the “was” because I saw no other way around it, but I changed the rest to this: “The rustling in the bushes grew nearer, and Gustave could see the dim outline of the creature that had haunted his every movement for three years. He fell to his knees, terrified. Behind him, Gustave heard the marquis let out a cry of horror followed by the thud of his rifle falling to the ground. This bête was no beast.The darkened form stepped into the clearing. It pounced, and the forest of Ténazeyre echoed with Gustave’s tormented screams.”
- More passive voice, and also a “put”: “Some of his hair had been pulled out of the ponytail, and he had not bothered to put it back.” Changed to “The wind and action from the hunt had pulled some of his hair pulled out of the ponytail, and he had not bothered to retie it.”
- “The marquis had been eyeing him strangely for the past four months.” I’ve felt like this was an awkward sentence for a while. I find it interesting that at the heart of every awkward sentence lies a being verb. Changed to “The marquis’ gaze had often fallen on Gustave for the past four months.” It’s not perfect, but it’s better.
- “He had been unable to look the marquis in the eye for months.” Changed to “He had avoided eye contact with the marquis for months.”
- “He started to put the note in his pocket…” Changed to “He started to hide the note in his pocket…” Originally, I planned to use “shove,” but “hide” gives the reader a better idea of what he is actually doing…
- “…suspected the young lord might have enjoyed the excuse…” Awkward sentence. Changed to “suspected the young lord used the beast as an excuse…”
- “a collarbone that had once belonged…” Redundant. Changed to “a collarbone that once belonged.”
- “many had suspected…” Changed to “many first suspected…” First communicates more.
- “as the Bishop of Mende had declared” Changed to “as the Bishop of Mende once declared.”
- “He stepped closer to the door so he could examine the contents…” Changed to: “He stepped closer to the door to examine the contents…”
- “Once he read the message, he folded the note as best he could with the shaking hands.” Oh, dear. “As best he could.” Really Michelle? That is such an annoying cliche, and I always seem to find a way to use it at least once in every single thing I write. Changed to: “He glanced at the message, but he paid little attention to the words. He already knew what it said.” I already covered the trembling hands in the paragraph before, so I took the sentence out.
- “…and Gustave could see the dim outline…” Changed to “…and Gustave saw the dim outline…”
- “He might have deserved absolution for his sins before the attacks began,…” Changed to “He might have deserved absolution for his sins before the attacks,…”
- “He began to sweat.” Often, I find that “begin” is just an excuse not to actually describe and/or show something. Changed to, “Sweat dripped from his forehead, down his chin, and onto the forest floor.”
- “Nearby, bushes and underbrush began to rumble and creak.” Changed to “Nearby, bushes and underbrush rumbled and creaked.”
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.