“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
I remember things in threes.
Today, I’ll describe what I call the three v’s of good writing. Young writers shouldn’t concern themselves with these concepts until the revision phase. However, as writers become more practiced, the three v’s should become an integral part of crafting early sentences.
The three v’s are VOICE, VERBS, and VARIETY.
- VOICE. You’ve likely heard of active and passive voice. Active voice occurs when the subject of a sentence is the agent of action–for example: Jane kicked the ball. Passive voice occurs when the subject is not the agent of action but, instead, is being acted upon–for example: The ball was kicked by Jane.
Notice how the passive construction requires a prepositional phrase–by Jane–to identify the agent of the action. For this reason, passive contructions are wordier than active ones.
Consequently, the use of active voice will create more vibrant prose. We want our subjects acting, and we ant to avoid wordiness. This doesn’t mean we should never use passive voice. Sometimes, we want to emphasize a subject’s helplessness or victimization. For example, instead of saying: The robber shot Jane, we say: Jane was shot by the robber.
- VERBS. In order to have our subjects acting, we need action verbs. Writers should minimize their use of linking (also known as “to be”) verbs in favor of actions verbs. Linking verbs include am, is, are, was, were, seems, looks, feels, and remains. Note that looks and feels can function as action verbs. Compare these two examples: Jane looks smart. Jane looks at him and grins. In the first example, looks links the subject with an adjective; in the second example, the subject acts.
Linking verbs connect subjects to one of two things: an adjective or another noun (called a predicate nominative). My previous example, Jane looks smart, shows a subject linked to an adjective. Jane is smart, Jane was smart, Jane seems smart all accomplish the same goal: to connect our subject to an adjective.
If we were to say, Jane is the president, or Jane is a pilot, or Jane is a stalker, we would be linking our subject to another noun.
When we use linking verbs, nothing happens. If you read over your work and find you’ve overused them, you can combine sentences to omit them. For example, you can say: Jane, our smart president, led us to victory. Or: Jane, the crafty stalker, committed the crime in plain sight. By omitting linking verbs and replacing them with action verbs, you’ll create more exciting prose.
In addition to choosing action verbs over linking verbs, you’ll want to choose precise verbs to avoid having to use a lot of adverbs. For example, instead of saying Jack walked slowly across the room, you might say Jack waddled, or Jack crept, or Jack strolled across the room. And instead of saying Jack looked intently at him, you might say Jack glared or Jack gazed at him, or maybe Jack observed, Jack studied, or Jack inspected him.
- VARIETY. Creating sentences with subjects that act will make your prose sing; however, the rhythm will become monotonous if you repeat words and sentence patterns without purpose. I say without purpose, because purposeful repetition helps with transition, emphasis, and clarity. Accidental repetition, on the other hand, results in monotony.
During revision, replace repeated words with synonyms you know (as opposed to unfamiliar words you find in the thesaurus). Side note: the thesaurus isn’t a place where you find bigger words to replace the ones you already have; it’s a place where you find words you know but can’t recall. All words have connotations–implied meaning gained through usage over time. Make sure you’re familiar with those connotations before you use the word.
After you replace repeated words with synonyms you know, then edit sentences for variety. Short, long, simple, complex–a variety of sentence patterns yields a more pleasant rhythm. Trust me. Change sentence openings, combine sentences, separate them, and reshape them into entirely new structures. Two of my favorite structures include the periodic and cumulative sentences.
The periodic sentence delays the main clause like this: Drenched, cold, and trembling and unaware that she was being followed, Tashia felt her way through the dark room. The cumulative sentence begins with the main clause, but adds more information at the end: She spotted him–tall, rugged, with long hair pulled back from his face, a five o’clock shadow, and jeans that fit so tightly that they left nothing to the imagination.
So, whether you’re writing an essay for your composition class or a novel to be published, consider the three v’s to make your prose more vibrant.
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