Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Lasting Lesson From An Unforgetable Influence On Me

Dave Newton is retired and living in Yakima these days. He's one of the best writers I ever worked with.

I thought of him recently as I listened to a client radio station and realized that everyone in the place seems to have forgotten about "active verbs."

Most writing - news, commercial copy, promo, liners, personality bits and all - could be improved with one simple act. Throw out "passive" verbs and replace them with more powerful "active" verbs.

A little voice came into my head as I listened, which I immediately recognized as Newton's, from more than 25 years ago:

When verbs get specific, writing comes alive. Verbs are much more important than adjectives or adverbs. In fact, master novelist Elmore Leonard calls adjectives "horrible things." So, while all writing rules must be broken, I think it's a good idea to stay away from passive verbs, like "is" or "are" or "have" or "do" ("Have your best jock do a remote at the fair."), and embrace powerful, specific verbs, like, well "embrace". ("Send your best jock out to broadcast live from the fair.")

Your active verbs don't have to be exotic or highfalutin' ("Shall we peregrinate to the store?"), just active.

Writing that harnesses the power of active verbs is always more dynamic, interesting and persuasive than...writing that has passive verbs (like the last phrase of this sentence). Notice, please, that I have used "is" and "be" in this paragraph. It's still O.K.

Use more active verbs than passive ones in everything you write or say and it will be better than "O.K."

Mini-bibliography: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, is a slim, crisp little book that everybody who writes should reread about every six months.


Anne Silberman said...

Stapling these wise words to the back of my hands, so I can read them as I type.

Patti and Bob Shannon said...

A good reminder. Happy Easter Jaye.

Dave Newton said...

Thanks, Jaye. I'm still a fan. Long may you wave.