A secret from my past life as a magazine editor: If I liked a story idea and could see it in our pages, I used a “cheat” to get a quick sense of the writer’s chops.

Pencil in hand, I studied the first two or three graphs of every clip the writer sent in, circling the verb in each sentence. Did the writer rely on wimp verbs, especially forms of “to be”? Or did he or she craft sentences with dynamic verbs—“lurch,” maybe, or “melt,” or “throttle”? If “is,” “was,” or “were,” filled most of the circles, I probably declined the pitch. If the writer relied on dynamic verbs, and in doing so made every sentence jump, I usually picked the phone right up. I still feel slightly guilty about this, sure that the writer would have preferred that I marvel at the entire story. But I rarely had that kind of time, and my “verb check” told me how much mastery the writer would bring to the task.

I tell every writer who will listen that it pays to turn one entire pass of a manuscript into a “verb check”—read the whole thing once just for the action words, and make them better.

Constance Hale, on the use of wimpy verbs (Sin and Syntax Workshop: “Putting Style in Every Sentence”, beginning April 12 at The Grotto). (via oliveryeh)


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