Upgrade Your Verbs

“A strong verb in the past tense is almost always a better choice than the gerund (-ing) form combined with was or were,” my editor wrote in her assessment of my manuscript.

Sure, I thought. Wasn’t I already doing that? I knew I’d been pretty careful about using strong verbs.

Then I searched my document for was and were and realized how just how easily they can slip by.

Consider the following examples (not from Freeblood):

They were jostling him in the hallway after class.
They jostled him in the hallway after class.


As they filed through the gate, she was texting her friend.
As they filed through the gate, she texted her friend.

Better, yes? And more succinct. Here’s another:

The sun was scorching down on them.
The sun scorched down on them.

Scorching is a strong verb, but its effect is diminished with the addition of was.

You may not realize you’re even writing in this fashion until you type was or were in the Find window and start searching your document. Don’t get me wrong. Combing every page for these workhorse verbs is a time-consuming task, but it is well worth the effort, once you see how much smoother and more robust your writing becomes when you eliminate this kind of clutter.

I like to spontaneously write whatever comes to mind until I run out of steam. Revision and self-editing—those come later. More ideas come to me when I don’t get caught up in correcting myself when inspiration strikes. This issue, however, isn’t one you’re going to want to leave until your final polish.

My suggestion is to go over a scene for these words and an accompanying “ing” verb as a way to start your writing day or when you hit a slow spot. That way, when you finish writing your manuscript, you won’t have two long, tedious searches ahead of you.

If you’re already in the final stages of your book and haven’t been working on this issue throughout, I’ll offer a bright spot: Once you carry out these searches in a novel-length document, you’re much less likely to make the same error in the future.



Filed under Writing Tips

2 responses to “Upgrade Your Verbs

  1. Very sound advice, Marny. I had the same advice given to me fortunately BEFORE I published my books and was so grateful for it. The only place where you can allow “was… +ing” is where the duration of the action is key. If the action is short or is completed before the next thing happens, then those evil little words have to go!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Chris! It would be unfortunate to have this problem pointed out after publication.

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