Put some verbs in your sentences.
Dr. Phil dispenses that advice to his talk show guests to goad them into creating a plan to resolve whatever problems they’re experiencing.
My advice for your (content) problems? Pack powerful and motivating verbs into every sentence. Stop using weak, extraneous, boring verbs.
That counsel bubbles up from my very core, fueled by my frustrated desire to grab a red pen and slash through all the wasted, wimpy verbs dragging down what I read. And I dare to share this advice even though I don’t always take it myself.
Study these four tips and related before-and-after examples to get ideas for peppering powerful verbs into your writing. The “before” excerpts come from paragraphs in writing-advice articles I found online and from my own work. (I do love irony.) I itched to edit some of the examples to correct more than verb use, but I refrained so you would feel the impact of the verb change without any cushioning.
Forgo passive voice
Passive verbs work best when the subject of an action is unknown, explains the Guide to Grammar and Writing. Here is an example: “The bicyclist was injured in a hit-and-run accident.” Since the driver (i.e., subject) is unknown, this sentence couldn’t work in active voice.
But many writers weaken their sentences by using passive verb forms too often. Passive voice creates rudderless sentences. Active verbs, on the other hand, create visuals, instill emotions, and motivate readers.
Consider this verb transformation example. The passive version: “Jane is a shining example of why you should study hard.” Now the active version: “Jane shines as an example of why you should study hard.”
Drag hidden verbs into the open
This tip comes from the U.S. government, which operates a website devoted to writing effectively: “A hidden verb (or nominalization) is a verb converted into a noun. It often needs an extra verb to make sense. For example, ‘Please make an application for a personal loan’ is longer and less clear than ‘Please apply for a personal loan.’”
The site notes hidden verbs usually end with -ment, -tion, -sion, and -ance. ProWriting Aid offers this advice to uncover hidden verbs: “Watch out for weak verbs like give, have, make, and take.” Here’s the example it offers:
- Verb in hiding: Active verbs make your writing stronger.
- Verb forward: Active verbs strengthen your writing.
Reduce connecting verbs
Linking verbs – usually forms of “to be” – connect the subject to the subject or adjective complement (a descriptor of the subject). Think of forms like am, is, are, was, were, be, been, and being. Other linking verbs, as Syntaxis explains, include appear, feel, look, seem, sound, and smell.
Syntaxis shares this example, with the first version indicating a state of being: “Mark is tall.” But when they edit to add an action verb, here’s how it reads: “Mark towers over his colleagues.”
Here’s another example: “Laquita is being a poor sport.”
Now, with the linking verbs removed and an action one thrown in: “Laquita lost the game and tossed the chessboard.”
Minimize hedging and hesitating
Don’t use unnecessary hedging verbs or phrases. Let me explain.
The Cambridge Dictionary says hedges “soften what we say or write … They make what we say less direct.”
You may need to hedge because you are uncertain of the statement or want to cushion your language to achieve a desired effect from the reader or listener.
People sometimes use the phrase “I feel” or “we think” as a prelude to a statement, softening the takeaway. For example, “I feel you should consider increasing your video production because the research shows audiences prefer that format.”
Instead, use direct language: “Increase your video production because research shows audiences prefer that format.”
Real examples revised for better verbing
I found many examples of poor verb use in articles that purport to teach writing skills. I wanted to add each one to the corresponding tip above, but I found most of them committed two or more verb sins.
In this one from MasterClass, I get rid of the passive voice and hedging language.
As published: “There are certain elements that every good writing style should have, like simple words, short sentences, and direct language that engages readers. While you want to preserve your unique tone, there are ways to improve your style by being more deliberate in how you arrange your words and craft your story.”
Verb-focused edit: “Every good writing style should engage readers with certain elements like simple words, short sentences, and direct language. To preserve your unique tone and improve your style, be more deliberate in how you arrange your words and craft your story.”
In this example from Grammarly, I get rid of an unnecessary gerund and eliminate the linking verb.
As published: “Getting started on a big writing project can feel intimidating if you’re not used to the act of writing.”
Verb-focused edit: “Big writing projects intimidate new or out-of-practice writers.”
And in this passage from MasterClass, I switch up the less powerful passive voice and get rid of the hidden verb.
As published: “Short sentences are easier to comprehend, something that readers appreciate. Avoid trying to pack too much into a line.”
Verb-focused edit: “Readers appreciate short sentences because they are easier to comprehend. Avoid packing too much into a line.”
In this example from a CMI article I wrote, I remove the passive voice and hedging verbs.
Original version from: “If you want to be taken seriously as a content marketer, stop acting like a member of the PR team. If you want to show that content marketing is a distinct contributor to business results, stop using only PR metrics.”
Verb-focused edit: “Stop acting like a member of the PR team to be taken seriously as a content marketer. Stop using only PR metrics to show content marketing’s value to business results.”
Put verbs into an action plan
Practice verb-focused editing to pack bigger punches into your content.
Try this: On the next three pieces you edit, dedicate one read to checking verbs only. Once you do it a few times, your verb use (writing and editing) will improve. Eventually, you won’t need a separate verb-centered editing round.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute