Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Tips to achieve lively language

By · Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Writers love words, right? And there are so many choices. Choose wisely. One way is to focus on strong verbs and the active voice. Make it a top priority to achieve lively language. Following are some tips to get you started.

How to strengthen verbs

Weak: There are good reasons to use strong verbs when writing and editing.

Instead: Use strong verbs when writing and editing.

Weak: There is a meeting of editors at 3 p.m. today.

Instead: Editors will meet at 3 p.m. today.

Weak: That player elevates higher than anyone.

Instead: That player jumps higher than anyone.

Weak: Lawmakers drew comparisons among their proposals.

Instead: Lawmakers compared their proposals.

Weak: If you don’t agree, fill out a complaint form.

Instead: If you disagree, file a complaint.

Avoid the passive voice

The passive voice weakens the message. Instead, use the active voice with strong verbs. Follow the subject / verb / object structure. Let the subject do the action. When a message is delivered in the passive voice, an action is put upon the subject.

Weak, passive: The message is weakened by the passive voice.

Instead, active: The passive voice weakens the message.

Weak, passive: The story was improved by the editor.

Instead, active: The editor improved the story.

Weak, passive: A special series about global warming was written by a reporter who had been in Antarctica for two months.

Instead, active: A reporter who lived in Antarctica for two months wrote a special series about global warming.

Tips to ensure strong verbs

Consult a thesaurus. Use every opportunity to make a good verb better and a strong verb stronger. Choose precisely the right word. Rewrite and rethink.

Weak: The judge will make a decision before Tuesday.

Good: The judge will decide before Tuesday.

Better: The judge will rule before Tuesday.

Check definitions. Be sure words convey their intended meanings. A quick look in the dictionary can uncover a better word for the message. Pay attention to nuance. Visualize the action.

Weak: The contestants hastily ate hot dogs. (To put food in the mouth, chew if necessary, and swallow — Webster’s)

Good: The contestants stuffed their mouths with hot dogs. (To eat too much or too quickly — Webster’s)

Better: The contestants gorged themselves with hot dogs. (To eat gluttonously; to swallow greedily — Webster’s)

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