Editing your work: The power of verbs

Editing your work: The power of verbs
Sunday, January 13, 2008 Andrew Greene

“Omit needless words,” advise William Strunk and E.B. White in their classic, The Elements of Style. Practicing what they speak, their textbook floats in at a mere 105 pages.

Deleting words, sentences and entire passages from your writing requires a hard-to-come-by ruthlessness. After all, we, when writing, often become fond of what we have laid down and fall in love with our work. It happens to all of us.

The ability to look at sentences analytically is the key to being able to edit and liven up your own work. In order to do this, you need to understand the building blocks that make up a sentence. Its two main parts are the subject, the sentence’s who or what, and the verb, the sentence’s action or state of being.

Although subjects normally come before verbs as in Mom cooked and The sun rises, it is the verbs that give life to your writing.

The grammatical subject of a sentence is often times different than the topic of discussion. Look at this sentence, She likes cereal more than eggs. What is the subject? What is the topic under discussion? Are they the same or different? If different, which is more important?

By asking these questions you see that the topic of breakfast foods is more important to the sentence than the grammatical subject, she.

The use of weak verbs produces limp, lifeless copy, while, conversely, active verbs give writing strength and confidence. Weak verbs are those which do not show action such as seem, be, remain, feel, appear along with passive forms, made up of the verb to be plus a past participle: for example, was stolen and has been bitten. The more weak verbs your writing contains, the more tiresome your writing most likely is.

When rereading and editing your work, look for weak verbs. When you find one, ask yourself what the sentence’s action is and then try to express that action as a verb.

Find the weak verbs in this sentence about expensive restaurants, These more expensive, less popular restaurants, whose lack of success was often the result of how expensive they were, are likely to go bankrupt.

The verbs of the rambling sentence are all, or contain forms of, the verb to be. Let us strengthen it by putting the action into verbs where we can. Here we go, Since these restaurants charge more, they are not popular and may go bankrupt.

Although we still have a single form of to be, this example is stronger for two reasons. First, the second sentence is much easier to understand and secondly, it is half the length of the first sentence. Remember, concise writing is powerful writing.

Consider this copy about a fictional project,

Though the canal ferries will be owned by the neighborhoods that they operate within, they will be operated by members of Jakarta’s Venice Project Association and partially supported by funds raised by the group. The remainder of the funds is to be provided by the city.

The wordiness of this 46-word example results from the many uses of the passive voice. Once you make the verbs active you end up with this tighter 25-word example,

The neighborhoods will own the canal ferries while Jakarta’s Venice Project Association will operate them. Both the association and the city will fund the ferries.

Now that we have shown that we must always be aware of weak verbs, we need to recognize that all to be forms and all passive verbs do not need to be kicked out of our writing.

After all, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” is tough to improve upon. Weak verbs do have their place. We just need to ask ourselves the right questions during the editing process to ensure that they belong in ours.


Editing your work: Writing tight brings the might

Editing your work: Writing tight brings the might
Sunday, January 20, 2008 Andrew Greene

To write tight is to write right. As mentioned in OnWords’ last column, omitting unnecessary words is a huge part of the editing process. Today we are going over how to identify and purge lazy openers, prepositional phrases and tedious nouns from your writing.

Lazy openers are those phrases like It is vital that and There are, that all too often open the baggy sentences that we write. Lazy openers are guilty of two sins. First of all, they contain forms of the weak verb to be. While at times we do need to use is, are, was, am and so forth, crisp prose contains them at a minimum.

Their second sin is that the words that make up lazy openers are simply unnecessary. Jump right into the action when writing. These phrases are easily cut from most writing and sentences read much better without them. Consider this example:

There is a mindless way to preparing meals which comes hand-in-hand with a mindless way of eating. This mindset is becoming more prevalent day-by-day and continues to bring with it greater and greater consequences.

By jumping straight to the point and eliminating the lazy openers and weak verbs we have reduced the excerpt by a third, giving us:

A mindless way to preparing meals, counterpart to the mindless way of eating, grows more prevalent every day and brings greater and greater consequences.

Although more concise and therefore stronger than the original example, you can reduce it even further:

Mindless meal preparing, like mindless eating, grows more.

Prepositions show relationships of one word to another. Some common prepositions are at, by, for, into, in, on, to, and with. A phrase, a group of words, that begins with a preposition is a prepositional phrase.

When editing, examine any sentences that seem to overly rely on prepositions. A good rule of thumb to follow is to avoid listing three or more prepositional phrases in a row.

The following example displays a number of the indications of excess wordiness that we have been covering:

The explanation offered by the principal of the school about the purpose for the new reading program in the English Department and the reasons that the teachers are not able to satisfy the wish of the parents by meeting with them this week was published in the newsletter.

Whew. What an eye full! How many prepositional phrases do you count in that example? What about the main verb? Is it active or passive? Remember from the last OnWords that we should stick with the active voice whenever possible.

Let us edit the passage by going active and reducing its number of prepositional phrases down to one.

In the newsletter, the school principal explained the English Department’s new reading program’s purpose and why the teachers cannot meet the parents, as they had wished, this week.

This condensed version is simple enough to be understood in a single reading, which is the goal of the effective writer.

One final ill to keep our eyes open for during the editing process is tedious nouns. Words ending with tion, ence, and ment suck the life out of your writing. Look for the weak verbs and tedious nouns that burden this passage:

The suggestion that Jakarta’s population increases and decreases by a quarter at the start and end of each working day, the fluctuation is because housing costs are too expensive near the city center may be incorrect since the benefits of living in the satellite cities are numerous in a variety of ways relevant to both education prospects and entertainment options.

Reading your writing aloud is a great way of judging it. Trust your own ear. Try reading the above. It should be hard to get through. Now, read aloud the revision below:

It is not only the high costs of living in the city center that lead to Jakarta’s population increasing and decreasing by a quarter each working day; people also chose to live in the satellite cities for education and entertainment benefits.

Despite being a third shorter than the original, the edited bit provides the same information as the first while being much easier to understand.

For most type of writing the primary objective is to be understood. By keeping our words as concise and as simple as possible, we are sure to meet this goal.

Andrew Greene’s personal blog can be found at http://writerinjakarta.blogspot.com.