A monthly column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Question: What does a thesaurus eat for breakfast?
Answer: A synonym roll.
Let’s take a look at the following passage:
Cheetahs can run very fast. They can run much faster than an ostrich or an antelope. They run after their prey at incredible speeds. For years, it was thought that cheetahs could run at over 70 mph. But, now we know they run considerably slower. A group of scientists accurately measured cheetahs running at a maximum speed of “only” about 59 mph.
Did you notice something wrong with that passage? It was scientifically accurate, it was grammatically correct, and it was syntactically specific. But, it was as dull as dishwater. Why? The primary (and only) verb was overused, trite, and hackneyed. True, the passage made a point, but it made that point at the expense of interest.
Here’s the key: Good nonfiction writing is not always dependent on the accuracy of the information presented, but rather on the verbs used to convey that information. Verbs give your writing appeal, intrigue, allure, action, involvement, and, most important, interest. In fact, verbs may be the most important grammatical element you can employ in your nonfiction work.
As nonfiction writers, we often have a tendency to concentrate on concrete nouns frequently surrounded by a cacophony of descriptive adjectives (“a masterful aerial display,” “an enormous yet lethargic rodent,” “an oxygen-deprived environment”). You may remember, as do I, those high school English lessons that emphasized flowery and colorful adjectives as a way of spicing up our writing and giving it more pizzazz. With no disrespect to my former teachers, I am often reminded of something even more powerful; this from the best writing book around, The Elements of Style. Strunk and White emphatically state, “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”
Their advice is just as true for nonfiction children’s books as it is for the steamiest adult fiction in the romance section of your local bookstore.
The substitution of a weak or weedy verb with a powerful one can energize your writing and ensure that your readers experience an engaging explanation of a new topic or complex subject. “Electric” verbs have the power to reinvigorate your writing and energize young readers as never before. They also have the potential to turn any subject into a page-turning event that will win rave reviews from librarians, teachers, parents, and, of course, kids themselves.
Here are three types of verbs you’ll want to flush from your manuscripts:
- Passive Verbs. These are verbs often referred to as “state of being” verbs—ones that take up space but convey no energy. Should these be eliminated completely? No! But, if your sentences are limp and lifeless, it’s certain that far too many of these have crept into your exposition. Examples include am, being, has, does, will, should, may, can, could, and was. Here are some sample sentences: [poor] The cheetah was walking slowly around the bushes; [good] The cheetah crept through the bushes.
- Verbs + Adverbs. Adverbs often weaken the intent of verbs; they are classic “space-fillers” that should be used sparingly—very sparingly. Look at these sample sentences: [poor] The cheetah ran quickly and rapidly after the gazelle; [good] The cheetah sped after the gazelle.
- -ing Verbs. When authors use -ing verbs, it frequently diminishes their intent. In many cases, it turns an active verb into a passive one. It also distances the reader from the action and turns lean sentences into flabby ones. Check these out: [poor] The cheetah was walking over to her cubs; [good] The cheetah walked to her cubs.
The basic rule is, when in doubt, focus on the verbs in your writing more than the adjectives (and certainly the adverbs). You will passionately draw the reader into your subject, inject a healthy dose of interest into your writing, and expand the reader’s vocabulary while offering a closer look at your subject matter. To assist you in selecting appropriate verbs, you may want to consult the Active Verbs List at https://www.upt.pitt.edu/sites/default/files/Active-Verbs-List.pdf.
Tony is an award-winning author of more than fifty children’s books, including the 2018 Outstanding Science Trade Book Tall Tall Tree (https://amzn.to/2KDjDyg). He also authored Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published [“This book tells the truth about being an author of children’s books.” – 5 stars] (https://amzn.to/2tREKCa).