Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Feeble Can't Fly

You can’t boot every worn word or phrase off your manuscript, but between the “Find” command and your critique group, you can search for feeble expressions, and where possible, eliminate them.


Before you present your manuscript to readers, type “ly” in the search box, and examine each adverb the search highlights. Your decision to keep or cut will rest on whether:

1.      You’ve pushed the limits of the assignment’s word count (adverbs can save words).

2.      The reworded section sounds less effective than your original version.

3.      Rephrasing will cost you so much time, you will submit your manuscript late.1

Look at each set in this section. In your opinion, does elimination of the underlined adverbs improve the writing? Can you defend your opinion?

 Shyly and slowly, Callie walked toward the clown.
A shy child, Callie approached the clown with apprehension.

“Water, I need water,” he rasped pleadingly.
“Water, I need water,” he begged.
His voice raspy, he begged for water.

The toddler whined continuously.
We endured the toddler’s constant whining.

She walked quietly.
She padded.

I apologized sincerely.
I expressed sincere apologies.

 The verb be

More time consuming than finding ly, review your manuscript for the verb be and its forms: am, are, is, was, were. Some writers perform this task faster by reading their work and marking the verbs. In particular watch for was followed by a participle. Substitute with the simple past (or past perfect). The improvement may require lengthening and/or rephrasing an entire sentence.

Notice be or one of its forms underlined in each set here. Once again, you decide which version you like best, and why.

The soldier was limping.
The soldier limped.

I was going to attend the concert, but the tickets were too expensive.
I intended to attend the concert, but decided against purchasing high-priced tickets.
Expensive tickets prevented my attending the concert.

Upon arrival, I called Security because Pup was barking.
When I arrived, Pup’s continuous barking prompted me to call Security.

Myra was always treated like family, but turned against them after she graduated.
Myra, always treated like a family member, turned against her foster family after she graduated.

According to her art teacher, Marcia is an exceptional artist for her age.
Her teacher said, “Compared to her peers, Marcia excels in art.”

I’ll be speaking at the memorial.
I’ll speak at the memorial.

That particular oak, but no others was on the crude map.2
On the crude map, we identified no trees except that particular oak.

Lazy verbs

You won’t find the term “lazy verbs” in a writing style book, but it’s an apt moniker for a set of verbs called linking verbs. They link a sentence’s subject to its predicate. A constant part of everyday speech, they wheedle their way into first drafts, and can remain, undetected through publication. Ask your critique group to watch for the little do-nothing blobs.

Perhaps we overlook words in the group because they can function as regular or linking verbs, depending on their use in a sentence. Tip: if you can substitute a form of be for a verb, it is a linking verb. For example:

1.      John felt sick. // John appeared sick. // John was sick.

2.      That tastes sour. // That is sour.

3.      Granny looked angry. // Granny appeared angry. // Granny was angry.

4.      The dog smelled stinky. // The dog was stinky.

5.      Cheryl appeared distracted. // Cheryl seemed distracted. // Cheryl was distracted.

But notice these same words in different contexts:

1.      John felt the cabochon, and pronounced it fake.

2.      I tasted the sauce, and added a tablespoon of sugar.

3.      When Granny looked at the headline, she flushed with anger.

4.      The dog smelled his bowl, but refused to eat.

5.      Cheryl appeared in the doorway—two hours late.

 Linking verbs often signal opportunities to show instead of tell. Sometimes your revision will include an extra sentence. Compare the paired sets below. How would you eliminate the underlined verbs?

He gazed at the withered fields, and he felt completely desolate.
Desolated, he gazed at withered fields. No rain, no crop, no money.

It looked like it would rain.
“Rain’s coming,” he said.

She appeared happy.
Her face reflected happiness.

            Certain verbs are simply weak: get, make, put, try, and more. Ask your writing group to watch for, and redline weak words or phrases. Consult a thesaurus or dictionary for substitutes. Upgrade your writing by trading puny terms for more powerful expression. Then, congratulate yourself for producing a polished manuscript.

1 Editors can fix small problems, but will often discard a manuscript that arrives late, and refuse further queries from the tardy writer.

2 An explanation of a grammatical point demonstrated by this sentence: “That particular oak, but no others was on the crude map.” Does the verb agree with its subject? Yes. Here, if I understand it correctly, is the rule:
ü  When a sentence has a compound subject in which a negative and contradictory plural follows the affirmative singular subject, the verb agrees with the affirmative subject.

I’d like your comments on the above rule, and/or examples that illustrate it. Please attribute any material you quote.

In my submissions, I avoid anything that would raise quirky grammatical points. I can’t imagine an editor who has earned her MFA—Masters of Fine Arts—appreciating lessons in English grammar from me. 

(c) 2011, Bernice W. Simpson

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