As writers, we know that verbs describe an action. So it’s funny that we often work so hard to make them less active.
Verbs are strongest when in a decisive form. But we often drag them down unnecessarily. Learning to spot weakened verbs can help make writing clearer, crisper, and more energized.
Stronger verbs can help you deliver a stronger message, plus simplify or clarify complex content. That’s especially important when writing scientific or technical material. Marketing copy also depends on conciseness and clarity. For documents that are limited in length, wrangling stray verbs can be a vital skill.
Here at Dragonfly, we encourage our writers and client partners and experts to get a grip on their verbs and sharpen their content by watching out for five sneaky ways that verbs lose their vigor.
1. The infamous “-ing”
In English, the “-ing” form of a verb—writing, resting, playing—is used to indicate an ongoing action. But “I was writing,” “I am writing,” and “I will be writing” take longer to read (and write) than “I wrote,” “I write,” and “I will write.” In B2B contexts, that means readers are more likely to digest and retain that info.
The “-ing” habit also turns your verbs into adverbs, describing the state of the object instead of the object’s action.
To do: Run a quick Find for “ing” as part of your draft cleanup. Review the results and decide which verbs can receive an “ing”-ectomy.
2. Away from the action
Another way we weaken verbs is by hiding them behind yet more verbs. How many times have you written that something “was designed to” do something? Or that a product or service “creates the ability to” do something?
Instead, get straight to the action. For example, instead of saying something “is made to deliver outstanding service,” say that it “delivers outstanding service.” Instead of “creating the ability to” do something, simply “enable” it.
To do: To spot this offending verb form, look for strings of “to” phrases or verb infinitives. Then lop off the unnecessary verbs and get right to the point.
3. Passive (aggressive) verbs
Not unlike passive-aggressive people, passive verbs are afraid to admit to an action. The customer didn’t “reduce the size” of its workforce; rather, the “size of the workforce was reduced.” Nothing to see here. Passive verbs gobble up space, so making them active tightens sentences. Still, in some instances, these verb forms are necessary.
- Certain content simply can’t risk assigning potential blame or assuming specific results.
- The actor in the sentence might not be clear, such as when content is directed at or talking about multiple people.
- Sometimes, turning a verb from passive to active makes the sentence overly long or awkward.
Otherwise, strive to prevent passive verbs.
To do: Search for words like “was” or “is” or for past-tense verbs that describe present-tense action.
4. Living in the past or future
Speaking of tense, beware the past and the future. Unless you’re actually describing past events or discussing events you know are in the future, most B2B contexts can be strengthened by using the present tense.
This is especially true for instructional text. Telling learners, “Log in and click Button A, then select option B,” is clear and to the point. But for whatever reason, we can lose our sense of time and write, “After you log in, you’ll click Button A, then you’ll select option B.”
Worse yet, we can meander back and forth between past and present, especially when attributing quotes. Often, quotations sound livelier when we note that the speaker “claims xyz” instead of saying that the speaker “claimed xyz.”
To do: Use the same scan you used to spot passive verbs to find past-tense verbs.
5. Long and complex
In B2B content, you can’t always avoid complex, scientific, technical, or specialized terms. But you can use shorter, more easily understood verbs to explain those concepts. You can also keep sentences short when you must keep verbs long.
If understanding a complex term will help readers, use verbs they’re already familiar with to explain it. Look for precision in your verbs, yes—but if a simpler one will do the trick, go on and use it. Remember, in B2B content, time and energy matter. Readers are usually trying to solve a problem or make a decision, and they want to do so as quickly as possible.
To do: Always think of the reader: their level of familiarity with your topic, what they want to accomplish by reading it, how much time they do (or don’t) have.
Revive your verbs with these tips to make your writing more effective—for you and the reader.
This post was written by Writing Manager Lisa Péré and edited by Senior Editor Molly Gamborg.