Friday, December 4, 2009

Verbs are Where the Action Is

“Remember that adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb.” -- Alexander Chee in Annie Dillard and the Writing Life, quoting Annie Dillard.

I love this statement. I read stories frequently from authors in lust with adverbs. They like the way they sound, they tell me. These folks don’t realize how dense adverbs make prose and how much they slow the reader down. My thesaurus is falling apart because I spend a lot of time with it finding the correct verb to express the action happening in just one sentence. Earlier in the article, the author provides this quote.

"All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs."

He also mentions an exercise where, after finishing a draft of a story, the author circles all the verbs, then counts them. The object is to increase the number of verbs in the next rewrite. I’ve never tried this. I’ll have to sometime.

One of my favorite exercises is to underline all the verbs to point out errors in tense and the use of passive verbs. I may also underline adverbs and forms of “to be” to see if I’ve overused either. I don’t include adverbs if I can help it in my writing -- there are times when they make sense, I think -- so I don’t find many. Variations on “to be” is another thing. I overuse “was” in first drafts. It’s an easy word to use -- and type. It’s a word that doesn’t require any brain power to use. The brain power occurs when attempting to replace it with a better verb.

I’ve never checked, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find I've never written a story without using some form of “to be.” Perhaps that should one of my writing goals for 2010.

If you read nothing else this week, read this article -- and share it with your writing friends.

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