Wimpy Verbs—the Weeds in Your Prose Garden

Like weeds that spoil your splendid garden, wimpy verbs sully your prose.

“Be verbs,” the various forms of “to be,” dominate the wimps list: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being. Along with the linking verbs—appear, become, feel, grow, look, seem, remain, smell, sound, stay, taste, turn—they belong to a class known as “state-of-being” verbs.

Truth to tell, wimpy verbs litter my drafts, and sometimes even my revisions. If I’m not vigilant, I get called out by my writing friend Gaylon Greer.  Thank goodness.

Here are some examples of how choosing verbs other than “be” verbs strengthen sentences.

Ex: Brandon is fearful of giving his speech.

Fix: Brandon fears giving his speech.

Ex: Danielle grew uncomfortable when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Fix: Danielle’s chest tightened when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Ex: I am lonely.

Fix: Loneliness grips me.

Ex: Such a brazen crime seemed unimaginable to residents of the quiet neighborhood.

Fix: Residents couldn’t imagine such a brazen crime in their quiet neighborhood.

When you start messing with words, the fun begins. For example, as I think of Brandon,
certainly “fears” is better than “is fearful.” But I want to feel his angst viscerally. And that’s what I want for my reader. So, “The mere thought of giving his speech made Brandon’s knees quake and his mouth go dry.” Been there, done that.

And I can’t resist going beyond the “brazen crime” sentence. So, “Several neighbors bought guns. Two men took turn patrolling the streets at night. A widow put her house on the market.”

Search in a chapter of your WIP for these key culprits: am, be, was, and were. You don’t have to weed all of them out of your prose–sometimes you’ll just like the cadence of the sentence as is. But you’ll find many sentences can be improved.

Leave a comment or example of your own.

Quotable

What could be more nostalgic than the smell of the library you grew up with? Or more likely to produce a lump in the throat than memories of riding bikes to the library with kids? Or more significant than thwarting the John Birch Society’s attempts to get certain books off library shelves?

–Leanna Englert, in “The Voice for America’s Libraries

(I meant to use this for Library Week, but April got away from me.)

4 thoughts on “Wimpy Verbs—the Weeds in Your Prose Garden

  1. PREACH, SISTER!! I REALLY work hard on active verbs / active voice with students in my classes. This ONE change in writing ramps up power exponentially.

    1. I’m sure you have to work hard to get these concepts to stick. Maybe if I’d picture you on my shoulder as I write, my drafts (first, and, alas, sometimes subsequent) wouldn’t suffer from infestations of linking verbs.

  2. I’ve learned more from a few paragraphs in your blog than I’ve learned from all sorts of books and classes by people with well-known names. If I ever get a book published, you’ll be first on my acknowledgements list!

    1. Wow, Andy, that’s high praise. It’s probably trite to say, but we all stand on the shoulders of others. Btw, I’d love to read a book you decide to write.

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