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028 How to Be Smart in a World of Dumb Verbs
28th April 2015 • Rough Draft • Rainmaker.FM
00:00:00 00:08:33

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Sentences are pretty simple little things. Noun and predicate. So why do we screw them up with lame verbs? Good question.

Even in the complex sentence, we still depend upon the noun, we still depend upon the verb. So those constructions better rock.

And because the difference between a brilliant sentence and a bad sentence usually boils down to the verbs … your verbs need life.

They should vibrate. Tremble. They should carve a vivid picture in the head of your reader.

In other words, they should be active. And fierce. They should growl, hiss. Leave an aroma.

So, in this episode of Rough Draft you’ll discover:

  • A few exercises to help you write warm-blooded verbs
  • The verb trap all writers fall into (and the stupid-easy way to break this bad habit)
  • My silly advice on overcoming bad verbs (you can’t afford to ignore)
  • The William Faulkner short story that drives me absolutely nuts

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The Show Notes

The Transcript

How to Be Smart in a World of Dumb Verbs

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, a digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Demian Farnworth: Howdy dear podcast listener, this is Rough Draft, your daily dose of essential web writing advice. I am Demian Farnworth, your host, your muse, your digital recluse, and the Chief Content Writer for Copyblogger Media.

Thank you for sharing the next few minutes of your life with me.

Listen. Sentences are pretty simple little things. You got your subject. You got your predicate. The simplest is the subject and a verb …

The noun performs an action.

“The witch belches. The moss dreams. Demian falls.”

Of course, sentences can be complex. “Demian fell into the moss when the witch belched.”

Or this doozy, which amounts to a long list connected by semi colons:

“I was in a surly mood when I woke up so I went to the record store; bought a Wagner album; teased the clerk; downed an iced tea; taunted the vendor who sold it to me; stole cheese from my roommate to make a sandwich; dropped the album on the record player, slid my headphones on, and devoured the sandwich in three bites; three hours later I was in a worse mood.”

The Verb Trap All Writers Fall Into (and the Stupid-Easy Way to Break This Bad Habit)

Even in the complex sentence, though, we still depend upon the noun, we still depend upon the verb. So those constructions better rock.

And because the difference between a brilliant sentence and a bad sentence usually boils down to the verbs your verbs need life. They should vibrate. Tremble. They should carve a vivid picture in the head of your reader.

In other words, they should be active. And fierce. They should growl, hiss. Leave an aroma.

The sentence “I was promoted from junior to senior copywriter” is bad. It s weak, and it s passive.

“I earned a promotion from junior to senior copywriter” is better.

However, “My boss promoted me from junior to senior copywriter” is best.

A Few Exercises to Help You Write Warm-Blooded Verbs

Let me pause for a moment and answer an objection that is probably swimming around in your head am I suggesting that you concern yourself with every single verb you write? Even if you are responsible for writing one 500 word article a day?

The answer is yes. This is practice. This is technique. It s about paying attention to detail. It will be tedious at first, but eventually it will become second nature. Within a few months, more practically within a year or two, you ll be able to churn out a list of sentences with strong verbs.

It just depends on how often and how long you practice.

So the first step to writing warm-blooded verbs is to recognize when you are slipping into passive.

And a good sign you are slipping into passive — not always, but usually — is when your verbs include “is, was, were.” Some version of the word “be.”

For example, I “have been” writing passive sentences. So I am being taught to write active sentences.

My Silly Advice on Overcoming Bad Verbs (You Can t Afford to Ignore)

The best way I ve found to correct this tendency (we all do it) is to remind myself of the template: [subject] [verb].

[Subject] [verb]. [Subject] [verb].

“The fortune teller read my palm. She explained what she saw. I scrambled for the door. She yelled, “Stop.” I said, “No, you should have seen that coming.”

Again, that might seem tedious, but it s no different from an athlete being broken of bad habits, and that usually happens when a coach carefully corrects and adjusts her movements. Those adjustments might be small, almost inconsequential, but the results usually produce large improvements.

Once you ve mastered that technique, next you can work on injecting life into your verbs. And the best antidote for that? Reading.

The William Faulkner Short Story that Drives Me Absolutely Nuts

William Faulkner wrote a short story called “Pantaloon in Black” that I cannot stop reading. It is in his collection Go Down, Moses. I ve only read three other stories in that collection “Pantaloon in Black” is that seductive.

The main character, sprawling in grief after his young wife dies, is in constant, self-destructive motion. Always striding, lifting, drinking. Thus, the plot is a fluid, manic current.

Unstoppable and fatal. And full of hot-blooded verbs.

It is a wonder to read. And I want to write like that. But better.

As Steven Pinker says and research suggests, studying the classic style will break you of your weakness for corporatese, academese, bureaucratese, and legalese in other words, wordslaw.

The question is: how far are you willing to go for the right word? For the right verb?

So I m in the middle of this article that s filling out at around 1,300 words. I m about two-thirds of the way done. I still need to close it.

However. There is a glaring hole in the middle of it. And I m searching for the right word. The right verb. To fill that hole.

For some reason I got the bright idea I would watch Apocalypse Now. Perhaps my verb was in there. That s a 2 hour and 38 minute movie.

Will it be worth it? Perhaps. It was. In fact, even though I didn t find my verb, it was worth it. But more on that later.

I ll end with this: How far are you willing to go to find the perfect word? The perfect verb? The perfect sentence? The perfect metaphor?

Let me know in the comments. And by the way, if you haven t already, do me a favor: leave me a rating and a review on iTunes. Let me know how I m doing. It would mean a lot to me. Your encouragement always makes me want to work harder.

I love hearing from you.

Until next time, take care.

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