Reading Verbs

Know your verbs and your story will flow smoothly and read naturally. Verbs find two expressions relevant to the storyteller, tense and voice. Voice defines the perception of the action, controls transitions, and enables the dynamic presentation of both action and description. Verb tense controls the pacing of the action, aligns the reader’s perception of time passage with the events of the story, and affects the readability of the material. The correct technical use of verbs will do more for your story than any other technical element of writing.


Verb voice is either active or passive. Passive verbs describe a state of static being, and are often called the “be” verbs: is, was, were, will be, and similar verbs that are used with non-specific subjects. A good rule of thumb (and popular internet meme) is that if you can end your sentence with the phrase “by zombies” you are using a passive voice. Passive voice has its place, most notably in descriptive passages and instructional writing. Passive verbs draw little attention to the subject or action in a sentence, and focus the reader’s attention on those phrases that end the sentence. Continual use of the passive voice results in predictable, repetitive sentence structures that quickly blur together in the reader’s perception. The reader loses focus on the subject of the sentence and what that subject is doing in favor of descriptive phrases that typically end the sentence. For instruction manuals, this enables a technical writer to impart a large amount of information quickly. For the novelist, it means the reader pays little attention to your characters and their world, forming no strong impression or connection to your story. For all the reader knows, your story is just another novel … by zombies.


Active verbs describe a state of transitive change, and place the reader’s focus squarely on the front part of a sentence. The strict subject/predicate relationship means that reader perception processes both subject and verb twice, once for the beginning of the sentence and again once the rest of the sentence is read. This places an intense focus on the action, keeping characters foremost in the reader’s mind and forcing the reader to notice what the character is doing. Active verbs may be used continually without straining reader perception or becoming repetitive due to the wide variety of active verbs. Active verbs may be used in place of passive verbs in almost any situation, and are always preferable. Identify active verbs by using the “zombies” trick already mentioned or by removing forms of “do”, “be”, and “is”.


Verb tense is a complex and extremely technical subject. Most writers really only need to be concerned with one verb expression: the simple past tense. Most stories are told in the past tense; sometimes a first-person account will use the present tense. In both cases, best practices always use exclusively the simple forms of the verb. Simple verbs allow the reader to focus on the action of the story and nuances of the character. It preserves pacing and leaves the reader’s timeline of events. Simple verb forms don’t require the reader to devote attention to thinking about what he’s just read. Simple verbs communicate clearly because they can only be interpreted in a limited number of ways. Simple verbs can be identified by their use of a single word, and should not be modified by a following phrase. Zombies unfortunately are of little use in isolating simple verbs from complex ones.


Verbs and their proper use are one of the most varied and complex structures in the English language. Proper use of verbs can be treated at textbook length. Best practices can be summed up with only two rules: always use the active voice, and always use the simple form of your chosen tense. Strict observation of this practice dramatically improves any manuscripts readability.

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