Pet Writing Peeves: Extra Verbs

The monthly “Pet Writing Peeves” I’d hoped to post all year ended last June. I ran out of things to bitch about. Who knew? I’d welcome guest posts on the topic.

Previous posts in the category have largely revolved around things other writers do that annoy me. My goal was to share things nobody told  me (or more likely, I just missed along the way). I’m grateful to the writers who comprise the Athens Writers Workshop for finally telling (or reminding) me. I will always <3 them.

The focus of this post changed half a dozen times. The connection between several similar issues wasn’t immediately apparent to me (#SlowLearner). I’m not sure my command of grammar is sufficient to explain the what for’s and why nots. Lack of knowledge has never stopped me before, so I’m going to try.

Using lots of verbs makes writing more active, right? The answer is definitely maybe. Depends on whether or not the verb violates a more important rule: make every word count.

Verbs describe an occurrence, state, or action. To the charge of using extra verbs, I plead guilty. In my (and your) defense, that’s the way thoughts come out. Conversations are riddled with extra verbs most people don’t even notice.

When I’m writing and the words are flowing freely, I don’t worry about or even notice extra verbs. Get the thought down and keep working toward “the end” of the story. Editing out extra verbs can wait until the first draft is finished.

Let’s start with an obvious example. “Start,” “finish,” “commence,” “begin,” and similar words, when used alone, are perfectly good verbs. They’re rarely needed with another verb. He (or she) either does something, or not. She started walking becomes she walked. He finished eating becomes he ate.

The same is true for “manage,” “try,” “attempt,” and similar verbs. He managed to save becomes he saved. There are, of course, exceptions. Does cutting the extra verb change the meaning? If so, let it stand. If not, drop it.

I’m also bad about using “was” and “had” unnecessarily. Sometimes past tense is my intention, but I’ve come to see — at least in my own writing — getting rid of these extra verbs makes a difference. A reference to a past event is telling. Dropping the helping verb puts the reader into the action.

“Had” is also the word every editor I’ve ever worked with is most likely to add to my sentences. The addition clarifies that the action occurred earlier — often much earlier, like months or years. I can see the difference after the edits, but rarely catch the problem in my read-throughs.

As always, there are exceptions to all of the above. The same test applies. If cutting the helping verb changes the meaning and the change in meaning matters, leave it in. If not, get rid of it.

Sentences chocked full of extra verbs may be grammatically correct. Trimming unnecessary words, however, will almost always make a sentence clearer and more concise. Ridding an entire manuscript of extra verbs makes a HUGE difference in how the story reads.