Self-Editing: F**K Verbs

I could tell you all about how to write your stories to make them more dynamic, more active, and have more verve. But I really couldn’t do any better than to share this self-editing tip from David Plotz, the editor at “Slate.”

When I got my first journalism job at the Washington City Paper in 1993… I turned in a long feature about a neighborhood fight over a power plant to the editor, Jack Shafer. Jack looked at the story, then ran a global search-and-replace on the document, swapping out every single “is” and “are” with the word “fuck.” He told me: Don’t come back until you have replaced every fuck with an active verb. That was great advice for a young writer and reporter, and it made for one aggro story. (Read the full article here.)

So there you have it. Take your current WIP, seek out your “is’s” and “are’s,” and nuke ’em by replacing them with an active verb of your choice. Depending on your inner editor’s tastes, results may vary.

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4 Replies to “Self-Editing: F**K Verbs”

  1. Aussa Lorens

    That’s actually a pretty brilliant approach– I am the WORST about using weak words like “just” and “that” all the time in my writing. Just found your blog and I love it 🙂

  2. Tammy Salyer Post author

    Nyki, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Nothing is ever quite that simple, least of all when it comes writing. However, it’s still a fun and hilarious exercise to help us suss out some of the habits or weaknesses in our own writing that we might ordinarily miss. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Nyki Blatchley

    I’m not sure that I agree with this. Journalism is very different from writing fiction, and the nuanced moods and meanings needed in fiction sometimes require “non-positive” language. Certainly, using “be” forms with verbs tends to be overdone and needs to be watched, but insisting on replacing every one could damage your writing just as much.

    It also perpetuates the myth that this is the same as passive verbs. Passive forms do use forms of be (eg “He was hit by a truck”) but so do many others. “He was running” is just as active as “He ran” and doesn’t mean exactly the same. Either can be right in the right situation.