Staying Active with Word Choices

By Katherine McDermott


            I used to watch Jane Fonda’s exercise tape and cheer her on from the sofa. Needless to say, I didn’t build any muscle or lose weight. Getting rid of passive voice in your writing is similar to getting up off the sofa and working out with Jane. Active, present tense verbs move the story along with pep and vitality. So how do you get started?

            Take a red pen if you’re using hardcopy and mark all the forms on the verb “to be” on your pages. That would be every “am, are, was, were, be, is.” Now go back and see how you can replace them. For example, John was lying on the floor watching television. Change that to: John lay on the floor and watched television. Or: John stretched on the floor and watched the television. Change the passive voice to past tense. Get rid of -ing.

            Choose very precise and descriptive verbs and be specific in all word choices. For example: The dog crossed the street. This is a correctly written sentence, but it lacks pizazz.

What kind of dog? How did he cross the street? Which street? Readers want to see a picture.

All of the following verbs show how a dog might cross a street: zig-zagged, raced, limped, meandered, tore, bolted, crawled, etc. The dog himself could be a: mongrel, cur, German Shepherd, brown and white collie, mangy mutt, etc. The street could be: Cosgrove Ave., a dual lane highway of fast moving traffic, Elm St. The more specific a writer is the better the reader can picture the action in his or her mind.

            Use the five senses to transport the reader to your scene. How does it smell, taste, feel, sound, and look? Example: The rank smell of garbage filled the alley between the high-rise apartment buildings. A baby cried on a balcony above our heads while a couple shouted at one another. The summer heat stifled us and made breathing difficult. Rick tasted his own salty perspiration when he licked his lips.

            Show don’t tell through action and dialogue rather than commentary. I could sit on that sofa all night and tell you how Jane Fonda pumped weights, lifted her knees and jogged in place, but I could not experience it without getting off the sofa. Staying on the couch with your writing will put your audience to sleep. Instead, get them to wake up and pay attention.

Author of Hiding and Abbey’s Tale as well as two children’s books, and two non-fiction books.







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