When Helping Verbs Don’t Help – Wednesday Words

I looked back at the first draft of Chapter 1 of my WIP, written last April during Camp NaNoWriMo, and compared it with the same chapter in my current, twice-revised draft, and noted one consistent change to talk about in today’s Wednesday Words: Helping Verbs. Sometimes they help, but sometimes they don’t.

Helping verbs are what my fifth grade teacher called the little verbs that work with the big ones to describe various tenses and structures in English. For example, when I say “He was walking down the street,” the major verb is “walk” and “was” is a helping verb. The teacher made us memorize a list of helping verbs I can still recite decades later:

Have, has, had, do, does, did, be, am, is, are, was, were, been, can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must

Writers need to be careful with these little words. Sometimes they are crucial, clarifying the difference between “She opened the door,” which is happening now in the time frame of the story, and “She had opened the door,” which happened earlier but has some ongoing effect right now. However, helping verbs can sometimes weaken a sentence, muffling the power of the main verb. Here are some places where I took out helping verbs to make a sentence stronger:

Things were finally winding down
…. became Things finally wound down.
I was working quickly
…. became I worked quickly
My hands were pressed against the wall
…. became My hands pressed against the wall

In each of these cases the sentence is stronger without the helping verb.

In my current (second) revision pass I’m focused on tightening action and clarifying character motivations, using feedback from my critique partners. My third pass will be to go through to mark all the places where editing changes have created problems (oops – I mean, “where editing changes created problems” *smile*), so I can fix what one of my partners calls the Frankenstein moments where the stitching shows. Eventually, though, I’ll get to the final polishing pass, and one thing I will do in that pass is search for every one of those 22 helping verbs and make each one earn its keep. Otherwise, out it goes.

Here’s a useful exercise. Take a piece of mediocre writing: a memo from the home office, a term paper from a weak student, an article in an amateur newsletter, or whatever doesn’t strike you as very powerful. Go through and highlight the helping verbs. How many are there? Then look at something that grabs you: the climactic paragraphs in your favorite novel, a story opening that takes your breath away, a masterful piece of journalism. Do the same thing. Does one use more helping verbs? Do they use them differently? Can you use what you learned in your own writing?

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