To Be An Active Writer, Part 2

~This article originally appeared in the April, 2011 issue of FIRST DRAFT, the newsletter of Sisters in Crimes’ Guppy Chapter. Susan Evans, Editor.~

PART 2—Active Words and Word Choice

Writing actively is not the same as writing action.

Some verbs are dynamic: Scream! Punch! Shove! Jump! Swing! Gurgle!

Others show action that is quiet: Consider. Dream. Pause. Ponder. Whisper.

Whether the action is brazen or calm, the word that describes it should be clear and graphic.

An action word should also be precise. How many words describe the act of looking? Take a moment and write a list. Your list may include words like stare, peer, gaze. Do all of those words mean the same thing? They are all forms of looking, but is staring at someone the same as peering at them?

Again, back to the dog.

Compare the following:

(A) “I stood at my window and watched my neighbor beat my dog.”

(B) “I stood at my window and saw my neighbor beat my dog.”

I changed one word—from watched to saw. How did this one word change make the sentence different?

“I watched my neighbor beat my dog” implies that the subject stood through the completion of the act, in this case the beating of the dog. The beating may have been brief, or it may have gone on all afternoon. There’s not enough information in the word “watched” to determine an amount of time. The implication is that the subject watched the entire beating.

“I saw my neighbor beat my dog” shortens the time. “Saw” has a quicker implication. It means that the act (the beating) made a visual connection with the subject. As soon as the scene was witnessed, it registered as being seen. Thus the subject only had to note one visual timeframe of the beating for the verb to have done its job.

Why do small changes like this matter? Because there are subtle differences between watched and saw; between peered and stared; between gaze, gape, and gawk. A single change of a word can change the nuance of the sentence. It also changes what the sentence may say about the subject. Strong words bring power to your writing.

Why did I include dog abuse in this article?

Our old friend Hamlet might stand at the door and watch the dog get a beating. Do you want your characters to be that passive? Or do you want them to take action?


At a recent conference workshop, I had students think of words to describe the act of walking, specifically someone walking across a yard. Some suggestions were marched, stalked, ambled, rushed, strolled and loped.

We examined the word loped, by considering the following questions:

Can a short person lope? (No.) Can a heavy person lope? (No.) Can an old person lope? (No.) If a person is loping, are they feeling distressed? (No.) Are they in a rush? (No.) 

By using this one word, we pictured a character who was tall, thin and young. We could surmise that nothing terrible had happened to him or around him because he appeared unhurried and calm.

The single word gave us hints about physical traits, emotional state and plot. That is what a powerful word can do.

One thought on “To Be An Active Writer, Part 2

  1. The wrong word can yank you out of the scene and dump you right back into your reality. I’ve just finished reading the fourth book in a series of five, and this one has so many examples of this; it had me itching for a red pen. I don’t know if it’s laziness or just a lack of imagination in this case, but it is a grievous writing sin in my book.


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