Verbs: A Deep Dive into the Rules of Good Writing


Posted April 17, 2019

One of the easiest ways to "level up" your writing is to pay more attention to a single, critical element: the verb. Using verbs well in your writing can spell the difference between strong versus weak writing, but "verbal" finesse can be more subtle than you think. Here are three foundational ways to improve how you use verbs in your writing.

1: Use the active and passive voices appropriately.

Active voice (“I ate dinner”) and passive voice (“dinner was eaten”) are two verb tenses; the former includes the actor (“I”) while the latter removes it. Both have their place, and it’s important to understand when to use them.
Active voice emphasizes and clarifies who or what the actor is in the statement. When in doubt, writers should favor active voice; it’s stronger, more direct, and uses fewer words (reducing bloat). That said, passive voice can be appropriate if the writer doesn’t know who the actor is, or if that information is unimportant. Scientific and engineering writing also often use passive voice as part of a larger strategy to convey objectivity.

2: Favor strong, precise verbs.

Strong verbs infuse your statements with energy. But what makes a verb strong? These verbs will not usually* require helpers like prepositions, adverbs, or supporting verbs. They’re also typically more precise.
  • Weaker: She made a decision. Stronger: She decided.
  • Weaker: She spoke softly. Stronger: She murmured, or she whispered, or she mumbled.
The stronger phrasing conveys more precise meaning, leaves less room for confusion and uncertainty, eliminates unnecessary words, and sounds stronger. The weaker examples use unnecessary helper verbs (“made”) and adverbs (“softly”).

3: Use the real verb wherever possible.

In fact, writers should usually* avoid using the noun form of a verb altogether. This tip is closely related to the previous one but deserves its own space. We call this "using the real verb."
  • Weaker: We took action, or action was taken. Stronger: We acted.
Turning a verb into a noun almost always weakens impact. Look for helper verbs like took, made, give, and their derivatives,  and for nouns that end in -ion or -ment. These are indicators that the real verb has been hidden behind a noun.
*Like most rules, these have exceptions too. For example, it might be more accurate and straightforward to write, “She gave a speech,” even though it requires a helper verb, than to say something “She spoke” (which may be too imprecise) or “She lectured” or “She sermonized” (which may have the wrong connotation). The key is to determine which phrasing will convey the clearest meaning. Clarity always comes first.

About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.