Writing about Writing #1: The wasted sentences, part 1: active verbs

So, being a wanna be writer and all, I think’s important that I take some of the space on this blog to talk about the art of writing as far as my inexperienced little pea brain can handle it.

But what to talk about first?

Looking back to the stuff I wrote while travelling (ugh), in college (Meh), and in high school (I burned it afterward after struggling through the re-read), what is the biggest change I can see that has taken my writing to (my perception only, I guess) a higher level?

Well, for one, I write better. Plain and simple. I stopped being a was/were guy, and started using active verbs that gave a visual of what the subject was doing. In the past, my sentences would lie around on the couch, watching infomercials, too lazy to get up and feed themselves. They didn’t do anything. Here’s an example from a story called It was fun (see? even the title?) that wasn’t bad on a reread, but wasn’t particularly good:

The ship was deserted, or almost. There was a girl in one of the storage rooms, near the front, that hadn’t been found yet. Her name was Kate or Kaylie or something like that. A pretty young girl. She was the one moving, rolling over from her back to her side on the folded up carpet she was using as a bed. Her eyes were closed, and Evelyn wondered if she was sleeping.

Jesu Christo. That’s a lot of was’s. Now, you say, what’s the problem with was’s? I mean, it is the most basic verb, telling the most basic concept. It’s common. My answer: Was is fine. Two was’s is acceptable. More than that, you’ve got a problem. Was is like water. If you need one, fine. Take a sip. Even down another glass if you’re still thirsty. But, afterwards, you start to think about what else that drink could do. It could be a drink (or a sentence) alone, or it could be a drink (or a sentence) with something more. With taste, with flair, with personality. And after we all have drunk enough of these other beverages, we’re a little tired of water. We need something more. Suddenly, water (or was) isn’t enough anymore. We expect more.

That, in a weird, somewhat bad analogy, is why you can’t overuse the “to be” verbs. They technically do the job, but they don’t bring anything more to the table. If you are writing a legal brief or something that is supposed to be direct, “to be” verbs do the job perfectly. But writers aren’t trying to be precise. We are trying to entertain, to tell an engaging story, and to provide depth to our characters and our worlds. “Was” does not do that.

I like to think I’ve learned my lesson. Where my sentences used to laze about on the couch, now they are rollerblading and doing yoga. They’re doing work. Here is an excerpt from a novella I’m working on called “What Happened to Us on Tamkuhl” (upcoming in serialized form on this blog, beginning Monday, Aug. 29):

The strange liquid stained all the walls yellow and fluorescent in bright splotches, though I found no more skeletons or messages. I found nothing, in fact, until I pushed open the door to the last room. It was a simple storage room, with some old machinery stacked in a corner and a table against the opposite wall. Across the room from me, the wall held a door and two windows, and I realized that I stood in the farthest rear of the building, facing the back exit. The fluorescence covered the walls, but it dimmed under the eye of horizontal sunlight that filtered into the room. I was about to leave the room to meet up with the squad when something caught my eyes.

From my count, two was’s and neither weakened the paragraph. Every sentence helped to paint a picture, which they must do, because, above all, we’re story tellers. We need to create images and feelings in the minds of the readers, on top of getting information across. “Was” only gets information across. Often, losing was is an easy fix. The sentence “The boy was painting in majestic colors” can be switched from the present participle (I think) to the past tense with little effort: “The boy painted in majestic colors.” Others are less easy: “The girl was tired” must also be changed, but how to change it? Well, that’s the fun. Getting yourself out of the “to be” verbs forces you to write with description, to paint the scene for the reader in a way that shows the girl is tired, rather than simply stating so.

And that, on a basic level, is the first part of not wasting sentences: Make sure that they say something, and show, don’t tell! Next time on Writing about Writing: The wasted sentences, part 2: instilling theme.


Posted on August 5, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Christian Riley

    Hey Jeremy, great job on your story The Farthest Coast. It WAS great!

    I loved your topic here about “was” and “were” by the way. I myself stumbled across this epiphany a few months back when I got some feedback from an editor who said my particular story had a “telling voice.” I scoured the internet on how to change that, and then bam!, there they were. Was, and Were. Now, whenever I finish a story, I search those words out and consider replacing them with more active verbs. Anyways, it’s nice to see other authors giving out good tips.

  2. I liked your story “The Farthest Coast” so much I felt compelled to look at your blog. Your explanation of how and why to avoid overusing “to be” verbs is clear and should be helpful to many.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: