writing-use-fewer-words

There are various ways through which we can eliminate unnecessary words, and one of those ways is by using the active voice. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve the treadmill or the elliptical, but it does involve mastering our skill as a writer.

What is it? Wikipedia defines it this way:

When the subject is the agent or actor of the verb, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice.

Let’s look at an example:

Passive: The apple was coughed up by the worm.
Active: The worm coughed up the apple.

See how many words we were able to save in that one sentence? We traded “was coughed up by” for the short and simple “coughed up” saving us two words. When editing sentences, imagine that each word is one dollar spent, and before you know it, you’ll be working to save a bundle. Imagine they’re pounds, and your books will turn into short stories! ūüėČ

The key to the active voice is that of making the doer (for lack of a better word) the star of the sentence. If the worm is coughing up a huge chunk of apple, he wants top billing for all that hard work.

However, when you want to tilt the discussion in your favor, you might use the passive voice. Say for example, a little kid down the street throws a rock at you, and this is the umpteenth time that he’s done so, you may want to point at the rock in your forehead and say, “This rock was thrown by your son!”

There are times when you want to make the object the star of the sentence rather than the doer. In that case you’d want to deliberately use the passive voice.

Another way–in fact my favorite way–to save words is by choosing stronger verbs to replace the weak ones. An author friend¬†gave me a leg up early on when she suggested that I be cautious of the “ly” words. These words are often a sign of lazy verbs that need to be firmed up.

Here are a few examples of “ly” words and some muscular alternatives:

walk softly  |  tip toe
shout loudly  |  scream
go quickly  |  jolt
move slowly  |  linger
hold firmly  |  grasp
rub gently  |  stroke
talk quietly  |  whisper
talk loudly  |  shout

When I wrote my first book,¬†I looked at every single “ly” word to see if it should stay or be removed. Most of the verb/adverb combinations were replaced with one strong verb, but in some cases I had my reasons to keep it.

Of course not all “ly” words are adjectives. One can say, “I’m lonely,” but there is no reason to say, “I’m terribly lonely,” is there? Unless your kids went off to school this past week, and you’re left alone at home writing in cyberspace.

I digress. The “ly” words are the easiest ones to spot, but after a while we learn to spot other lazy verbs too. Take for example a sign reading, “Do not go in here,” it would sound stronger if it read, “Do not enter,” or “Keep out.”

Strong verbs are a sign of a strong writer, so whip those lazy verbs into shape, and firm up your prose!