Low Energy Verbs … More from Jim Taylor

I’m going to share more of  Jim Taylor’s insight on “Eight Step Editing” because I have the same belief  as he does about low energy verbs. I’m sure it doesn’t sound like the most riveting subject; however, this insight may be key to improving one’s prose.

Verbs provide the energy in any sentence. Nouns, by contrast, provide facts. Nouns are solid objects, the concrete elements – persons, places, things, concepts. The more nouns, the more thoroughly a statement seems anchored in fact. Perhaps for that reason, our culture loves nouns. They make assertions appear more objective, more factual.

But anchors do not make a boat move. To move, a boat needs motive power. So does a sentence. And that motive power comes from verbs.

Just as our culture loves nouns, our culture is suspicious of verbs – except for certain harmless kinds of writing, like fiction and poetry. But for anything serious, we shy away from verbs.

Let me make this assertion – the only energy in any sentence comes from its verbs.

There are four varieties of verbs:

1. Active Transitive

2. Active Intransitive

3. Passive

4. Linking

Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a grammar lesson! Let’s move on …

Listen to people talking – in the street, on the bus, in the coffee shop. Listen to the verbs they use (I always advised my ESL students to do this). In my experience, almost 80% of them include some form of “to be.” In speech, we can perhaps afford this wasteful extravagance. Because in speech, only a small part of the meaning conveyed comes from the words themselves. Tone of voice, actions and gestures, visuals, and facial expressions all add energy to otherwise flat words. But words on paper, or on screen, have already lost 90% of their potential passion and energy.

Sometimes we want low energy verbs. Sometimes we want to put readers to sleep, or at least lull them into a less alert state. More likely, though, we’ve had no idea that the verbs in the paper would have a numbing effect.

For an exercise I suggest taking something you’ve written and circle every use of the “to be” verb (is, am, are, was, were, be, been, and being). Those verbs not only mark passive and equating verbs, they also identify verbose constructions, wasted words, and an excessive dependence on prepositional phrases. They lie, in short, at the root of weak writing.

My message is then simple. To write clearly, effectively, and persuasively, avoid the verb “to be.” We will never get rid of every “is” or “was.” I have not. But try to use any form of the verb “to be” no more than necessary.

Once again, I thank Jim Taylor for allowing me to share his expertise. As I see it, writing is a perpetual learning experience and I just want to share as many gold nuggets as I can!