A first draft is very hard to write, and sometimes you just need to get words on the page in all their glorious messiness.
But when it comes time to revise, you’ll need to polish things up so they read smoothly. One crucial area of focus: your verbs.
Verbs are the cornerstone of novels. When verbs are clear, well-chosen, and unimpeded, books tend to read smoothly. When they’re ill-chosen, buried, and cluttered with unnecessary filler words, books feel muddled.
Wipe away the grime around your verbs. Here are some tips:
Replace “was [verb]ing” with “[verbed]”
One of my more unfortunate writing tics is an overreliance on, well, is and was.
Rather than saying a character looked, I have a habit of saying “Nathan was looking.” Rather than saying someone wrote, I say “Nathan was writing.”
It feels much clearer and more active for a character to just do the thing. Look at these two sentences. Which one feels more urgent?
- Nathan was running.
- Nathan ran.
When I finished my recent novel, I did an entire pass just looking for places where I could replace “was” and “were” with active verbs. If you have a similar habit as mine, I’d recommend you do the same.
Reduce your reliance on adverbs
Stephen King famously said “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
While I don’t personally believe you need to go through and rip out every single adverb in your book, I still think it’s a good idea to look for places where you can replace a verb+adverb combo with a better verb.
Why say “walked happily” when you can say they “bounced?”
Why say “shouted loudly” when you can say they “screamed?”
Note: This does not apply to dialogue! Stick to said and asked rather than getting too clever with your dialogue tags AND don’t pad your saids and asked with adverbs. The dialogue itself should convey how something was said.
(And yes, I know a certain megabestselling children’s book series breaks this last “rule” with reckless abandon).
Eliminate as many “saw,” “watched,” “eyed,” etc. as possible
In first person and third person limited narratives, it goes without saying when the anchoring POV character sees things. By definition, the reader only knows what they know. If we see it happening, it’s because the anchoring POV saw it.
You don’t have to say “Nathan watched a condor streak through the sky.” You can just say “A condor streaked through the sky.”
If you want to show the POV character reacting to seeing the thing, fine. But get rid of as many “saws” and “watched” and “eyed” as possible. It will go a very long way toward reducing the clutter in your novel.
Cut unnecessary padding words like “began to [verb],” “kept [verb]ing,” and “still [verbed]”
Much like physics, in a novel an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless the writer specifies otherwise.
You don’t need to say someone “began running.” You can just say they ran.
You don’t need to say they “kept running” or are “still running.” Unless you say they stopped, the reader is going to assume they’re still running.
Take a close look at all the words around your verbs. Strip away anything unnecessary.
Don’t use two or more verbs when one will do
Especially when showing characters reacting to dramatic moments, often writers have a reaction explosion where they load up a sentence with two, three, or many more different reaction verbs.
Usually one will do. Two at the most.
You don’t need to say “Nathan’s heart leaped and he smiled profusely with obvious glee, skipping down the sidewalk hugging everyone he passed while shouting thanks to the mountaintops.”
Just pick one or two reactions and let it suffice.
Trust the reader to get the gist
Sometimes writers have a habit of spelling out precisely why a character reacted the way they’re reacting rather than trusting the reader to contextualize the reaction based on their circumstances.
Let’s say a character just found out their parents are actually malevolent robots bent on world domination.
Do you need to say:
- Nathan shuddered and recoiled, the implications of such a horrific notion boggling his mind as he reconsidered the history of his entire life.
Or can you just say…
- Nathan shuddered.
Now, before I get a bunch of angry comments like the last time I suggested people pare things back: I’m not suggesting that you don’t show a character’s thought processes entirely. In fact, more often writers don’t show them thinking through things enough.
I do think it is usually a good idea to separate a clear physical reaction from the thought processes.
And those thought processes should not be about things the reader is going to find head-slappingly obvious. Obviously finding out your parents are malevolent robots would be a horrific and mind-boggling event. Let the character react first, and any additional thought processes should be more sophisticated and fill in more details than what the reader can deduce on their own.
Do you have any tips for keeping your verbs clean? Take to the comments!
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Art: The Senses of Hearing, Touch and Taste by Jan Brueghel the Elder
Björn Johnsson says
Great tips, as usual, I am very grateful for your generously shared wisdom in the literary field.
Always good to be reminded.
Neil Larkins says
“It goes without saying when the protagonist sees things. By definition, the reader only knows what the protagonist knows. If we see it happening, it’s because the protagonist saw it.”
Love the clarity in this. Great reminder that of course the protagonist is looking.
JOHN T. SHEA says
So Nathan was past-continuously and adverbially watching a condor streak through the sky and shuddering and recoiling at his parents’ plan for robotic world domination.
If memory serves, Nathan’s parents are actually rice-farmers, growers of that lovely white (or brown) fluffy tasty stuff so many of us love and depend on. Yum! But watch out! That tastiness is all part of their dastardly plan!
Now I can’t finish my chicken risotto with rice.
Maybe just another little bite…
No, John! Don’t!
Great post. I’m currently editing, and will now look for was (verb)ings.mi suspect there will be quite a lot