Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The craft of rewriting-Technical Flaws-Telling-Other Weak Constructions
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes And Renée Miller
Published: March 09, 2013
Using weak verbs to summarize action detracts from the both atmosphere and action of the writing. Replacing these with stronger and, in some cases, more interesting verbs enhances the experience of the sentence.
Most commonly, prose is written using the past tense of the verb. For example, “walked” is the past tense of “walk.” Search each sentence for the verb and determine if it is used correctly, if it is weak, or if it is past perfect (“had walked”) when it is not introducing a flashback. Blase verbs can be replaced to tighten the prose. In many cases, clarity increases as well.
Weak: Carly stepped through the crush of bodies. She moved past Mary, who as usual tried to stay to the front of the crowd.
Strong: Elbowing her way through the crush of bodies, Carly pushed in front of Mary. (Here, we learn more about Carly.)
Weak: The boy had cringed at the idea of cleaning his room. (Takes us out of the immediate action.)
Strong: Shouldering the garbage sack, the boy cringed as wrappers and banana peels squished into the bedroom carpet beneath his feet.
Constructions such as “seemed to,” “tried to,” and “began to” also weaken the prose. Delete them and go with the simple past tense of the verb to make the sentence active.
Weak: Her scent seemed to envelope him.
Strong: Her scent enveloped him.
Weak: She tried to begin the report again.
Strong: She wrote the report again.
Weak: He began to run but the sound seemed to get closer.
Strong: He ran, but the sound drew closer.
To find weak constructions, writers can search for words like those listed below and substitute a stronger, more visual verb to strengthen the action. Sometimes a word, such as “reached” in the example below, is not needed at all. The key is to make a replacement that doesn’t overdo the intent. If the action is dramatic or emotional, show it with the verb. Verb choice conveys character, action, and pace. It can also be used to build suspense or create panic for the reader.
Move Push Reach
Bring Pull Went
Brought Press Came
Weak: She reached into the cupboard and pulled down a cup.
Strong: She took a cup from the cupboard.
Dramatic: She yanked a cup from the cupboard.
Weak: Julie reached the door and tried to push it open.
Strong: Julie opened the door.
Dramatic: Julie rammed her side against the door, but the lock jammed.
A search through the manuscript using Word’s “find” feature will locate words that indicate weak constructions. Rewriting weak constructions to active ones will “show” action, senses, and emotion rather than “tell” about them. This draws the reader deeper into the character and enhances his experience of the story.
In addition, look for progressive verbs, such as “walking,” “talking,” etc., combined with words like “was” and “were.” Evaluate them. While the words do not always need striking, they often muddle the action or distance the reader from the character.
Distant: She was thinking about quitting her job.
Close: She considered quitting her job.
The progressive verb “thinking” is further weakened by the use of “was.” Action verbs state the information concisely, giving the reader a clear mental image of the action performed. This enables the reader to become engaged in the story. “Considered” is an action verb that eliminates the need for “was.”
When removing weak writing, also replace verb forms like “has” with verbs that clearly convey the meaning of the sentence. Example:
Weak: She has friends over every Friday.
Strong: She hosts parties every Friday.
Watch for sentences that begin with “there are” or “there were.” These two words add nothing and are often called “empty” because eliminating them changes nothing.
Weak: There are four dogs playing in the yard (present progressive tense).
Strong: Four dogs played in the yard (past tense).
Weak: There were cars sinking in the water. (past progressive tense)
Strong: Several cars sank. (Unless we’re in a desert scene with quicksand or traveling through mud, sinking usually requires water). (past tense)
The next step is to drop the infinitives “to be” and “to have” and replace them with action verbs that describe the action.
Weak: He wants to have a birthday party.
Clear: He wants a birthday party.
Weak: She planned to be home by eight.
Clear: She planned to arrive home by eight.
Weak: Jack wanted to be single again.
Clear: Jack wanted a divorce.
Writers can use the simple present tense (she runs) and simple past tense (she ran) to avoid weak constructions. This replaces the present progressive (she is running) and past progressive (she was running) that weakens prose.
Writers can’t eliminate the weak verbs in every sentence because, like linking verbs, they are often necessary. In small quantities, they tend to be invisible, much like “she said.” However, it is important to be aware of how often we use weak verbs and weak constructions and identify what can be changed.
The caveat to all rules is in the case of “voice,” which is a subtle blend of rhythm and feel. A dogmatic pruning of every “non-active” or weak construction can make for an exhausting read, and sometimes a choppy voice. In other words, once a writer is aware of and sensitive to the presence and uses of weak constructions and telling writing, she should have the confidence to “break” the rule when instinct dictates. Rules are meant to be used to enhance our skills not dogmatically followed.
Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes
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