Rethinking College Writing Instruction

On the 70% active verb ratio

(This is an excerpt from the verb chapter of my new book, which is addressed to students: Ten Things Successful College Writers Do Differently.)


Build most of your sentences on active verbs

You’ve no doubt heard of the active verb from prior teachers, but just hearing about it is not nearly enough to be a good writer in college. You have to master it. You have to know the active verb, think about it, turn it over in your hand, taste it like a chocolate melting in your mouth. You’ve got to come to like it.

The verb in the sentence is the engine in the car–the power. You can’t escape its importance. Without an engine, the car goes nowhere, and without a good verb, the sentence won’t move either. Verbs, like other engines, vary greatly in horsepower. Some are like little putt-putts you find on a small lawn mower but others roar like race cars.

Active verbs are the verbs that roar. They matter hugely and you must have them in mind whenever you write or edit. The first four chapters of this book promote some nice-to-know style moves but this chapter is serious as a heart attack.

When you can write with lots of active verbs, you will have moved from the minor leagues to the major leagues of student writing. Learning about verbs takes a little while and more than a little practice. If your writing teacher is a fanatic about active verbs, he or she’s on the right track and you are lucky.


A. What to Do: Write So That 70 per cent of Your Sentences are Active

What does it mean to have 70 per cent of your sentences active? It means that when you count up the number of sentences in your paper, and you go through them one by one to check whether the verb is active or not, you will find an active verb in seven out of every ten sentences. For example, if you wrote a 40-sentence paper, 28 of those sentences would use active verbs. Of if you wrote a 30-sentence paper, 21 of the sentences would have active verbs. If you wrote a 200-sentence chapter of a book that met this standard, 140 of the sentences would be active.

Most teachers don’t talk about active verbs this way. Most of your English teachers in high school advised you to write with active verbs, and perhaps exhorted you pretty strongly, but they didn’t come within ten miles of asking you to maintain certain ratios of active verbs in your writing. To many, the idea sounds pretty whacked.

I’ll explain more about this later, but if you ask me for proof I have it: Highly readable writing is full of active verbs. Consider Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Rowling’s Harry Potter books. The active verb wakes up the reader’s mind—again, more on this later—and the non-active verbs, the other kind, put readers to sleep.

[add Examples from Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, and Harry Potter]

As I write this chapter I am also working on the side as a writing coach for a few high school students. I just now met with a bright 17-year-old senior named Connor and discussed his college application essay. He has ambitions to get into some very good schools so he needs his essay to be good.

“What do you know about active verbs?” I asked him in the study room of our local library which I’d reserved for an hour. “How did your teachers talk about them?” He answered that his teachers had “mentioned them” but “they didn’t make a big deal about them.”

“Boy are they wrong,” I said. “In high school, active verbs are just kind of a nice thing to shoot for. In college writing if you are going to be any good, the you have to master the active verb. It’s crucial.” We looked through his 650-word essay paper and found and circled 22 non-active verbs, far too many. “Not every verb needs to be active, but most of them do,” I said. “I never knew that,” he said. Connor’s at home as I write this, reworking the essay and changing a lot of the verbs so they become active.

By setting a standard of 70 per cent active verbs, we’re imposing a kind of objective order on our writing styles and setting an objective standard for ourselves. You can count active verbs and count sentences and come up with your percentage score, and when you identify and count the active verbs you will get a handle on this very important style variable. The number 70 comes from my experience in the classroom. It’s a little arbitrary (it could have been 60 or 50 per cent). But the point is that a paper with zero active verbs, or 10 or 20 per cent, will be a mess.

I and 10,000 other writing instructors have seen 100,000 vacuous papers whose whole problem was the near complete lack of active verbs. Perhaps the students who write that way had been encouraged to use active verbs when possible, but like Connor had missed the real point (one that all professional writers know): that a high proportion of active verbs is needed for readability.

If a 100-sentence paper should have 60 to 70 active verb sentences, that leaves about 30 per cent of the paper for the lower energy sentences, which are either sentences of being or passive-verb sentences. The first type does just what it says, and the second type focuses on the passivity of someone receiving an action rather than doing it. E.g.:

My front-yard squirrel was a chubby thief of bird-seed from feeders. (being)

The squirrel was flattened by a passing UPS tractor-trailer. (Squirrel is receiving the action.)

Passive sentences and being sentences are certainly useful, and a good, natural style will make sparing use of them, especially when a certain word needs to be the subject of a sentence and the only way to do it is through the passive. “The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing,” says E.B. White in the third edition of his famous Elements of Style, and to show what he means by forcible writing, he contrasts these two sentences.

There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Dead leaves covered the ground.



B. How to achieve the 70 per cent ratio? Identify the verb, decide if it’s active, and change it if needed.

Here’s where the problem comes for students whose grammar is shaky. Identifying the verb is not as easy as easy as identifying a concrete noun with the foot-drop test. With verbs, you have to learn (1) which word or set of words in the sentence is the verb, and (2) what kind of verb it is.

You need to know the type of verb so you can decide whether to change it and how.

This multi-level skill (where is the verb? what kind of verb is it?) may come easy to you or it may take a month. However long it takes, work at learning it. The best way is to jump in and compare them in this chart.

Active verbs show people or objects taking action Verbs of being: existence but not action
Passive verbs are phrases. They show people or objects receiving an action being done by someone else.

He walks
He leaps
She reads
She thinks
The cat moves
The brick falls

To be verbs:
He is
He was
She will be

He was beaten by thugs.
He was fired by Tim.
She will be dipped in chocolate.
The cat was burnt.
The brick will be broken.

Here’s the gist of this chapter: write most of your sentences in the manner of the first group. Frankly, if you just memorize is-are-was-were and cut them out of your writing, that will go a long way toward making you the active-verb writer you have to be.

My band is famous for playing Mozart on steel drums.
My band plays Mozart on steel drums.

Terry is an athlete devoted to swimming in the river every morning.
Terry swims in the river every morning.

The anti-slavery Republican party was the result of the highly popular anti-slavery novel
Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a key role in the rise of the
anti-slavery Republican party.

Active verbs can exist in any time frame They don’t need to be in the present.

My band will play Mozart serenades for the head of Parliament. (Future tense.)
Terry has swum in the river every morning since 2014. (Perfect tense.)

When you are trying to write a draft with active verbs, if a complete sentence doesn’t come to mind, just aim for two words. Squirrel ran. Terry swims. Birds fly. Trees sway. Jim pondered. Lincoln planned. Once you have the two words, the full sentence will come to mind easily.

Do not make the beginner’s mistake of thinking that the actor has to be a person. The actor can be anything—sidewalk or shoe or revolution or style.

Near midnight the wet sidewalks reflected the red neon bar signs.
The cannons pounded Fort Sumter throughout the night.
The American Revolution drew aristocratic volunteers from France.
The Baroque style of painting spread across Northern Europe in the 1640s.

C. Why Active Verbs Intrigue Us

It’s because we are alive that action intrigues us. Life itself is intrigued with action. Creatures from elephants down to mice must for the sake of survival be riveted to action in the environment. Like all animals, we scan the environment for action and movement–because something moving could be a threat, or a friend, or something to eat. So when language began to arise among pre-human communities long ago, and conversations went on around campfires, movement and action must have had expressions in sound. If specific movements were expressed by specific sounds, then they were what we now call active verbs.

Active verbs alert us, the way a something moving in the corner of our vision alerts us, forces a turning of the head. Such verbs intrigue us, wake us up, make us feel smarter, make us be smarter. Nature or God has created many visual species, or let them survive, and now after millions of years there is one species called human that speaks aloud, and it’s completely logical that the key sounds he makes are those conveying actions.

(Start or follow discussions on facebook/readable writing.)

John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852