Defibrillate Those Verbs: Putting life back into your writing

By Joyce K. Ellis

An ambulance whips in front of the hospital’s emergency entrance. One paramedic leaps from behind the steering wheel. Another jumps out the back, dangling an IV bag above the head of a lifeless patient. 

Inside the ER, Nurse Bella quickly takes vitals while other staff connect monitors. “I can’t get a pulse,” she says.

Dr. Guapo grabs defibrillator paddles from the crash cart and places them on the patient’s chest. “Clear,” he orders. 

Zap! No response. 

“Again!” 

Another zap. No response. 

(Pardon the soap opera, but the mere appearance of defibrillator paddles grabbed your attention, didn’t it?)

In storytelling’s perfect timing, on the third attempt the heart monitor’s flatline leaps into those crucial jagged peaks and valleys. Another life saved!

Many “mostly dead” manuscripts arrive on editors’ desks. The writer may not know the gravity of its condition, and editors don’t play ER-doc roles. But both writers and editors can often bring manuscripts back to life by defibrillating the verbs—choosing more active, accurate, and interesting ones. Strengthening the verbs can’t help but improve the rest of a person’s writing. So we need to develop ER-style life-giving skills for our own writing and for helping others. 

When consulting with writers at conferences or evaluating manuscripts I’m to edit, I first highlight in yellow all the to-be verbs and passive verbs. When yellow highlights dominate the page, the manuscript needs the intensive care unit. What are some symptoms to look for, and what is the treatment protocol? 

To be or not to be 

The verb to be hides in manuscripts in many forms and tenses: is, am, was, were, will be, had been, were being, and more. These verbs play an important role, but writers default to them too often. Those striving for excellence search for more vivid ways to convey a narrative or important truth. 

This article’s opening scene contains no to-be verbs. And you probably didn’t even miss them. 

Sometimes sentences with weak to-be verbs don’t require drastic changes, only a little more thought. 

LIFELESS: Judith was unable to find many writers who followed her publication’s guidelines.

DEFIBRILLATED: Judith found few writers who followed her publication’s guidelines. 

WEAK: After seventy-two rejections, the writer’s hopes were gone. 

MORE POWERFUL: After seventy-two rejections, the author’s hopes disintegrated. 

Especially watch for there is, there are, and there were. 

FEEBLE: There were no words that could describe . . . 

STRONGER: No words could describe . . .

COMATOSE: There are three categories of doubters that people fall into. 

MORE ALIVE: Doubters fall into three categories.

See how strengthening the verbs makes the rest of the writing better? And eliminating needless words creates a more engaging read.

Beware of to-be verbs hiding in contractions too. Though less noticeable, they still rob us of opportunities to use precise, strong verbs. 

WEAK PULSE: I’m fearful spring will never arrive.  

RESUSCITATED: He fears spring will never arrive. 

ON LIFE SUPPORT: It’s [It is] dangerous in that neighborhood. 

BREATHING UNASSISTED: Danger skulks around that neighborhood.

To-be verbs can also belie the perpetual nemesis: telling instead of showing. Sometimes this is a difficult concept for editors to convey to writers. But here’s an example:

In a profile I wrote of Christian musician Phil Keaggy, I could have told readers his mother was kind and loving. Instead, I briefly related something he shared in our interview: She warmed his pajamas on the radiator every night before he dressed for bed. That little detail showed her loving heart and kindness. No need for telling.

The to-be helping verbs, partnering with other verbs, indicate continuous action: I was parasailing. She is snorkeling. We were rappelling. But avoid unnecessary helping verbs. Would it communicate just as well to say the children played well for about an hour instead of were playing? Chop unnecessary words.

Employing active, precise verbs strengthens the whole manuscript.

Activate passives

Active verbs engage readers more than passive verbs do. 

PASSIVE: Both Randall and Frank were invited by editors to submit their articles. 

ACTIVE: Editors invited both Randall and Frank to submit their articles. 

PASSIVE: Absalom’s rebellion was caused by David’s inattentiveness. 

ACTIVE: David’s inattentiveness ignited Absalom’s rebellious spirit. 

Monitoring the vitality of verbs—and substituting active verbs for passive ones—creates opportunities for vivid word pictures. 

The word by, as illustrated above, sometimes betrays a passive verb. If you know who did the action, tell readers beforehand. 

DOWNRIGHT PATHETIC: A loud belch was emitted by the conference speaker. 

SLIGHTLY LESS EMBARRASSING: The conference speaker belched loudly. 

Avoid passivity as you write and edit. Keep verbs alive and active whenever possible.

Use passives appropriately

If we never used passive verbs, however, they wouldn’t exist in our language. So how can we use them appropriately? Two primary situations: 

UNKNOWN DOER: The murder was committed last night. (Cops don’t know yet who whacked the guy.) 

UNIMPORTANT OR DEEMPHASIZED DOER: The film was shown in its entirety. (Monsieur Projectionist doesn’t expect credit.)

The word by doesn’t always appear, though. 

AILING: The editor’s advice was ignored. 

HEALTHIER: The newbie writer ignored the editor’s advice.

Avoid other weak verbs

Other weak verbs that clog the arteries of good writing include had, got, experienced, and went. 

Had: Instead of saying, In the movie Tangled, Rapunzel had extremely long, flowing, blond hair, why not “activate” that verb and give her hair something to do? Rapunzel’s blond hair tumbled from the tower window to the ground, and she often cracked it like a whip. It’s so much more fun to play with active verbs.

The following use of had is one of my pet peeves: 

HORRIFYING: Richard had his dog die of food poisoning. 

Richard seems somehow complicit here. It might be considered an active verb, but this usage makes it sound like a mob hit—e.g., The Godfather had his competition offed. 

Instead, use an active verb; and we feel sorry for Richard instead of infuriated with the “canine-icide.”

SAD BUT NOT CRIMINAL: Richard’s dog died of food poisoning. 

Got: Which of these choices might impact readers more? Maddie got angry that the editor cut out much of her manuscript. Or Maddie’s anger smoldered when she saw all the editor’s red ink? And instead of writing Dennis got vengeance, narrate how he evened the score.

Experienced: Instead of writing Reginald experienced depression, give his depression an action: Reginald’s depression robbed him of his appetite. Don’t go bonkers with a thesaurus and say his depression burglarized his appetite. Use strong, appropriate verbs. Words chosen thoughtfully won’t interrupt the smooth flow of the manuscript. 

Went: Watch for substitutes that create word pictures. Lawrence went down the street doesn’t show us anything. No impact. Did he dash, limp, amble, hobble, strut, shuffle, saunter, or maybe even bebop down that street? Huge difference! 

Run diagnostics

Examine all the verbs. Run diagnostic tests. Print out a hard copy and highlight all the weak verbs. Using Find and Replace, search for at least the most common to-be verbs: was, were, is, am. Those may signal passive verbs as well. Then bring out the defibrillator paddles for those flatlining verbs. 

The cardioversion will take longer on manuscripts than it does on TV-drama patients. But, one by one, you can shock your verbs—the heart of your writing—back into healthy rhythm. 

Zap! Another manuscript saved.

This article is adapted from Joyce K. Ellis’ humorous grammar book Write with Excellence 201. The book is available from online retailers or from the author.

Joyce K. Ellis has been writing and editing for more than forty-five years. She has published hundreds of articles and 18 books, including the humorous grammar book, Write with Excellence 201, the picture book, The Fabulous World That God Made, and her new interactive devotional book for men and women, Our Heart Psalms. She is the former assistant editor of two EPA publications. Learn more at joycekellis.com.