Active Voice and Word Choice: How to Get Specific
As authors, we strive to create a vivid mental picture for our readers, so they can fully experience and comprehend our writing. We need to get specific to create this image, but getting more specific doesn’t necessarily mean adding more words. Sometimes to get specific, you need to pick more descriptive words and make sure you’re using active voice.
Choose Descriptive Verbs
What Are Descriptive Verbs?
Verbs are the action part of the sentence. They are what happens. They are also an excellent opportunity to get specific. Here’s an example:
The bunny moved away.
In this sentence “moved” is the verb. When you choose a verb like “moved,” your reader knows an action has occurred, but they don’t know how fast or in what direction. You could add those details by using more words, or you could pick a more descriptive verb. For example, you might say:
The bunny hopped away.
Hopping is a specific type of movement, one readers can easily picture. Now the reader knows the bunny moved up and down away from the characters and events of the story probably at a leisurely pace. If the bunny leapt away, that would be a faster, more urgent movement than hopping.
Why Use Descriptive Verbs?
Descriptive verbs are particularly important when it comes to facial expressions and body language. A smile shows happiness; a smirk shows triumph, a different kind of happiness. Slamming a book onto the desk shows frustration or anger, while tossing the book shows a lack of care or lighter mood. By selecting your verbs for their emotional connotations, you can show what your characters are thinking and feeling without having to state their feelings/thoughts.
Choosing a more descriptive verb can also eliminate unnecessary adverbs. If you’re using adverbs frequently to show how fast or intense the action of the sentence is, you might need a stronger verb. Here’s a sentence with a weak verb and adverb and another sentence with a stronger verb and no adverb.
I walked quietly.
In the first version “quietly” is the adverb because it is modifying the action “walked.” The narrator didn’t just walk, they walked quietly. However, if you use a more descriptive verb, you don’t need an adverb. When someone tiptoes, they are walking quietly and carefully and slowly. They are keeping their weight on the balls of their feet and sneaking around something or someone. All of these descriptors are wrapped into the stronger verb “tiptoed.”
By using a more descriptive verb, you not only paint a more vivid picture for your reader, you also eliminate extra words. You get more specific and tighten your prose at the same time. Usually, we think of adding words to deepen a description, but sometimes we just need to elevate the description we’re already using with stronger verbs. Choose action words that show direction, intensity, speed, and/or emotion to build a more detailed mental picture for your reader.
What Is Active Voice?
Active voice or phrasing doesn’t mean violence or movie-like action scenes. It is when the subject of the sentence is performing the action instead of being acted upon. This looks like:
Michelle scarfed the whole chocolate cake.
Notice how Michelle is doing the eating and how the verb “scarfed” is specific. Michelle isn’t just eating the cake, she’s eating quickly and somewhat aggressively.
Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon and should generally be converted to active voice. For example:
The whole chocolate cake was scarfed by Michelle.
When you use active voice, you speed up the pace of your story by eliminating extra words like “was” and you get more specific. This is similar to rewriting sentences with adverbs. However, active voice also serves to pull your reader closer to the story. Passive words like “was,” “am,” and “had been” make your story less immediate and dampen the action or movement. This makes the story feel farther away. When you use active voice, the action of the verb is happening right then. It’s immediate and therefore closer, allowing your reader to experience that action vicariously.
One place to watch for active voice and vivid verbs is descriptions of your setting. It’s easy to slip into passive descriptions that report the setting, so make sure you add movement and descriptive verbs to your setting. Instead of writing “the door was squeaky,” write “the door squeaked.” Remember, active means participation or movement in this context.
Pick Descriptive Adjectives
Like verbs, adjectives should be specific. If you find yourself writing sentences with lots of adjectives, you might need to pick more specific ones instead. Picking more specific adjectives has a similar effect to choosing descriptive verbs: you eliminate words to tighten your prose and speed up your pace and create a more vivid, detailed image for your readers.
Colors in particular can often be changed to eliminate adjectives. Dark grey could be slate. Bright red could be crimson. However, sometimes comparing the color to another object with the same color works even better. Such as:
She smeared raspberry-red lipstick all over his collar.
With eyes the shade of summer grass, he stared at Terri.
In these sentences, comparing the lipstick and eye color to other, well-known objects is more specific than only stating the name of the shade of color. These phrases do often require more words than a simple adjective, but a strong, vivid description shouldn’t be sacrificed for an arbitrary word count.
If you’re going to use adjectives, make them count. Choose descriptive words that are specific, so they sharpen the imagery in your story. Think about the details that will bring your story to life or your reader needs to remember later on. Those are the descriptions you might want to add to with specific adjectives.
An Editor’s Advice for Choosing Verbs, Adjectives, and Active Voice
The words that first come to you as you write will be influenced by your unique life experience, vocabulary, personality, education, culture, and more. Let these pieces of yourself seep into your writing. They are a part of your author voice. However, after you’ve finished your draft and revised your story structure, take another look at your word choice. Ask yourself if you are being specific enough. Are you choosing descriptive verbs? Have you used mostly active voice? Are your adjectives building specific mental images? If not, rephrase those sentences and choose different words.
If you find yourself using vague words or the same ones over and over again, get a Thesaurus or Synonym Finder. I recommend buying a physical book at a used bookstore. This will keep costs down and prevent you from falling down the internet rabbit hole while revising. Look for synonyms with different or more specific tones. If everyone is running in your story, maybe change “ran” to “sprinted” or “galloped.” Use descriptive verbs and adjectives and active voice, to tighten your prose, keep your story moving, and create a vivid mental picture to Ignite Your Ink.
What bland verbs to you find yourself using? When I first started writing, my characters were always stepping forward or back. I had to think of different verbs and movements to show their aggression or fear. Now, my characters rarely step.
For more articles on word choice and other aspects of writing and a free guide to using synonyms, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Author: Caitlin Berve
Caitlin Berve is the owner of Ignited Ink Writing, where she edits novels, creates video tutorials for software companies, and writes. Using her MFA, she teaches creative writing at conferences, colleges, and Colorado writers organizations. Caitlin seeks to fill the world with the kind of writing that lingers with readers, find magic in modern times, and pet all the fluffy and scaly animals she can.