Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader

Verbs are the engine of writing. When editing or reviewing, I often ask writers of both fiction and non-fiction: ‘Do you think critically about your choice of every verb in every sentence?’ The majority of answers are something like: ‘sometimes’ or ‘I don’t give them much thought because I’m focused on the flow of the sentence’. So many writers are focused on nouns, and describing those nouns using adjectives. Verbs can drive either the content with strength and verve or send the reader into a soporific state. This is because verbs have two ‘voices’: the active and the passive.

A sentence in which the subject performs the action of the verb creates an active voice and packs an immediate punch. For example, Angie hurled the bag over the bridge. Here, the subject or actor comes first (Angie) and the verb/action comes next (hurled), followed by the object (bag). However, a sentence using the passive voice reverses the order, adding (unnecessary) length to the sentence with extra words. The bag was hurled over the bridge by Angie. This results in a dull and convoluted sentence because the helping verb ‘was’ (the past tense of the verb ‘to be’) attaches itself to an otherwise strong verb (hurled) that does not need help. Here, the object (the bag) comes before the verb and in doing so establishes distance between the actor and the action.

Other examples:

The novel was read by Carrie in one day. (passive)

Carrie read the novel in one day. (active)

Rubbish was littering the ground. (passive)

Rubbish littered the ground. (active)

A scathing review of Martha’s new novel was written by the critic. (passive)

The critic wrote a scathing review of Martha’s new book. (active)

Writers of non-fiction use verbs to inform, persuade and command attention. However, news articles, scholarly writing and official reports often deliver ambiguity when written in the passive voice. Compare the following two sentences and note how the second sentence is more succinct.

Further investigation will be required to determine the reason for painting’s deterioration. (passive)

The conservation team will investigate the reason for the painting’s deterioration. (active)

I recently worked with an academic who didn’t realise he was constantly writing in the passive voice; for example, I suggested changing the convoluted passive voice in this writing … Context is provided by a wide-ranging discussion that encompasses … to a more active voice … A wide-ranging contextual discussion encompasses … However, the passive voice can be effective in the right context; for example, when the object needs to be the focus: The golden statue of Venus was discovered by divers in the sixteenth century. Here, it’s not who (the divers) discovered the statue that’s important, but the object (the statue) itself.

The passive voice can be useful in fiction writing if a scene requires tension and mystery. In the following passage, the first sentence is activated by the verb, ‘kicked’, and demands immediate attention from the reader, but the next two sentences are in the passive voice, highlighting the objects that received the action.

 Max kicked the door open. The table was overturned, the mirror was smeared with blood, and a bottle of red wine had been smashed against the peach-coloured wall.

I hope you agree that there is tension and colour in this passage, even though the majority is written in the passive voice. The author ‘paints’ a vivid picture at a distance using strong verbs that enliven the narrative with sound, movement and emotion. But knowledge of who caused the carnage is denied.

Peter Carey skilfully builds tension, atmosphere and personality through the verbs in this passage from Jack Maggs (1997):

Maggs’s inky shadow flooded the crib. He leaned very close, so close indeed he might have bitten the child. Instead, he brought his wide nostrils almost up against that soapy skin and, with his arms clenched behind his back, inhaled John Marshall Oates’s breath.

The power of Carey’s prose flows from the action of the verbs; most are strong verbs, and he uses adjectives sparingly, but effectively (inky, soapy). Many writers rely too heavily on adjectives to describe characters and places. Surprisingly, this is the case in Simon Winchester’s opening paragraph of his acclaimed 2001 non-fiction book The Map that Changed the World:

The last day of August 1819, a Tuesday, dawned grey, showery and refreshingly cool in London, promising a welcome end to a week-long spell of close and muggy weather that seemed to have put all the capital’s citizens in a nettlesome, liverish mood.

Winchester even uses a verb qualifier (‘seemed to’), which is a no-no for many writing gurus! But he certainly sets the scene, and proves that the earnest writer shouldn’t be too hung up on writing rules. As Simon Heffer, author of Strictly English (1997), writes: “Given the tenses, voices, moods and other properties of verbs (are they transitive, intransitive, or both?) there is plenty of scope to mangle their usage.”

Non-fiction writers, particularly academics and students, often take verbs or adjectives and turn them into nouns or noun phrases (nominalisation). For example, consider this sentence:

Professor Holman conducted an investigation into the cause of the class mutiny.

By removing the nominalisation (conducted an investigation), the verb takes over the action and delivers a punchier sentence:

Professor Holman investigated the cause of the class mutiny.

 Noun-style writing is impersonal because it steals the action from the verb, which ends up becoming a kind of abstract noun followed by a prepositional phrase. Verbs convey ideas or action — someone or something must act. Noun-style writing is static and lengthens sentences unnecessarily, making the writing longwinded.

Verbs can inject cinematic magic into your writing without reliance on adjectives to colour and plump up the nouns. Avoiding nominalisation and the passive voice will cut down on the flab in your writing. Keep in mind that an active voice is dynamic and serves a dramatic purpose because it’s direct, invigorating the action or empowering a statement. Conversely, a passive voice is more convoluted, calling attention to the receiver of the action, whether animate or inanimate. However, converting every passive sentence into an active one isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. Every sentence must be fit for purpose.

Are you ready to have your writing proofread or edited, whether it only needs a light edit or a more detailed structural edit? Or maybe you’d benefit from an assessment of your unpublished manuscript. If so, then why not contact me via my contact page or directly at with a brief overview of your specific needs and the word count of your manuscript?

My editing is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM) unless an author has been commissioned to write a book using the publishing house style guide.



(The featured painting is by Lucy Kemp-Welch, ‘Horses bathing in the sea’, 1899, oil on canvas, 152.9 × 306.5 cm, NGV, Melbourne)

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