Saturday, January 24, 2009

Write for Action! Use Action Verbs!

Business people write for action. That is, they typically write to inform, justify or persuade. Because they write for action, they need to use action verbs. Being verbs - is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been - when used alone - take the writer and the reader nowhere.

OK, let's take a timeout for a quick, and painless, grammar lesson. The being verbs (worth repeating)- is, am, are, was, were, be, being and been - show no action. They work well with action verbs, as in "I am writing", and we call them "helping verbs" or "auxiliary verbs." But, put them by themselves and they flounder. "I am a writer" expresses no action. It expresses only my state of being.

The being verbs regularly appear in awkward sentences, such as this beauty: "The penetration of the compensating mechanism and the resulting overheating of the main valve are relative to the subordination of the acting dynamics." This models the kind of sentence we see often in academic and bureaucratic writing. It sounds intelligent but confuses the reader and causes multiple readings for understanding.

Commenting on academic writing, the late Michael Crichton said something like the following in the New England Journal of Medicine: Medical writing is a calculated attempt to confuse the reader. Doctors write this way so that they seem intelligent and don't get passed over for promotion.

Academics surely do write this way; take it from someone who works at a university. I find the best examples of bad writing on the bulletin boards at CMU and among the emails regularly sent to me on campus.

If you want to write well, you need to put many skills together - coherence, transition, parallel structure, and accurate pronoun reference, among many other grammatical necessities. But, if you write for business, you can begin now to simplify your writing with short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. And, you can begin to look at each sentence to make sure you have used action verbs.

You will find thousands of action verbs in the English language. Indeed, they help give our language its beauty and utility. If you want to create impact with your writing, ditch the being verbs and opt for some action!

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