Six Ways to Tighten Your Writing

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“Familiarity breeds contempt.” 

That’s how the saying goes. And when it comes to our writing, there are some contemptible practices we all need to familiarize ourselves with, if only so we can learn to spot and eradicate them. Get yourself on a first-name basis with these inherent flaws that worm their way into nearly every first draft, and you’ll be well on your way to fine-tuning your prose like an expert.

Wimpy Verbs

Wimpy verbs suck the energy from your writing. You can’t always cut them, but you can often find ways to change them and make them stronger. Weakness lurks in “to be” verbs like was, were, are, and is. Vague words used to describe emotions and thoughts are also weak, so be on the lookout for words like felt, feel, thought, and think. Many other verbs that don’t convey a specific thought, emotion or action are weak, so use went, looked, and seemed sparingly.

It often helps to think of weak verbs as those that have trouble standing on their own in a sentence. Take a sentence like, “The dog was barking.” Remove the modifier (barking) and you have “The dog was.” Not much of a sentence, is it? How about, “The dog barked?” Better! Continue reading


Preying on the Weak (Verbs)

Originally published September, 2007

Felt, looked, seemed…

They’re the most basic of verbs–the ones used to identify a state of being. We sometimes need them in our writing, and a story without them might well be florid and over-the-top. But an excess of weak verbs sucks the energy from a story. A good writer learns to stalk those weak verbs like prey and cull them from the literary herd.

How can you identify weak verbs without memorizing a list? It’s pretty simple. Weak verbs are those that don’t stand up well in a sentence without support. Take the modifier away from “The boy seemed hostile ” and you have “The boy seemed.” “The boy seemed” is still a sentence, but it describes a kid who simply… gives the impression of something. “He felt sad” becomes “He felt.” Again, still a sentence, but what does it tell us? Continue reading