Write active verbs

surrender dorothy

The Wicked Witch uses skywriting to warn Dorothy.

She doesn’t beat around the bush by saying, “You ought to surrender” or “You should surrender if you know what’s good for you.” She just commands Dorothy to capitulate.

That’s how you should tell people what to do, too. The word imperative comes from the Latin word imperare, which meant to command. From that root we get the words emperor and imperial.

So use imperative verbs give instructions or commands. Imperative verbs are “bossy” words. Examples: Put down the glass. Send in the clowns. Surrender, Dorothy.

When writing technical manuals or driving directions for print manuals or websites, start every instruction with an imperative verb.

  • Use an imperative, or command, verb to tell someone to do something.
  • Call a cab.
  • Give me the marker.
  • Click the left side of the mouse.
  • Start each instruction with a bullet.
  • End each bullet with a period.
  • Choose from the menu bar.
  • Turn left at the second light.
  • Pull the tubing out of the socket and into the purifier.

If you are editing an earlier version of a manual, convert every instruction to the imperative. That makes every entry parallel with each other – and thus easier to follow.

  • ORIGINAL: If a Tyvek cover is found within the flexible hose or spool piece, it must be re-cleaned prior to use.
  • REVISION: If you find a Tyvek cover within the flexible hose or spool piece, clean it before using it.

If the manuscript contains negative instructions, change them to positives if possible.

  • ORIGINAL: Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
  • REVISION: Stay in jail.
  • ORIGINAL: Don’t touch that knob.
  • REVISION: Avoid contact with the knob.
  • ORIGINAL: Do not enter.
  • REVISION: Wait your turn before entering the private offices.

Now: Just do it.

Edit your own copy. Cut with courage. Rewrite with enthusiasm.

do not flush frivolously

Re-write: Tighten, tighten, tighten.

Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel, may have written this:

“It has often been said there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds more words than he needs
is making a chore for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh of the reader’s relief is.”

You just need to learn exactly how to cut.

  • Change most verbs from passive voice to active.
  • Delete adverbs and adjectives.
    • Use one highlighter to identify adjectives, another color to illuminate adverbs.
    • Now read your work without them.
    • Can you eliminate them?
  • Use verbs instead of nouns. Compare these sentences:
    • He took up a collection for charity.
    • He collected money for charity.
    • In each case, the second sentence uses two fewer words and provides more information.

Long sentences may be appropriate for serial killers but not for you.

Use parallel construction to help readers


Make lists parallel.

When composing bulleted lists, put every entry in the same format. That is, make all entries parallel, consistent, similar.

  • Start every bullet with a verb — or with a fragment or a noun clause. But make them all the same.
  • If one bullet contains only a single phrase, make the other entries match.
  • Capitalize every entry, whether complete sentence or just a frag.
  • Use identical punctuation to end every bullet. I recommend a period.

Example. Here is a list of “quick tips about exercise.”

  1. Exercising only 30 minutes per day, three times a week, can improve your lifestyle.
  2. Exercising with a companion encourages you to reach your fitness goal.
  3. Surround yourself with people who share similar fitness goals.
  4. If you make fitness fun, you are more likely to stick with your program.
  5. Get help in developing a plan that allows you to eat well and offers a variety of foods.
  6. Research suggests that exercising may add years to your life.

I recommend

  • Starting every bullet with a command, or imperative, verb, like Surround, above.
  • Removing bullets 4 and 6, neither of which is a tip. Put them before or after the list.
  • Use bullets, not numbers. (I used numbers above simply to be able to refer to it more easily.) Numbers imply a logical sequence, but these tips are in random order. Alphabetizing them is a grand idea.

Here’s a an edited version of the quick tips.

Research suggests that exercising may add years to your life.

  • Exercise only 30 minutes per day, three times a week, can improve your lifestyle.
  • Exercise with a companion to help you reach your fitness goal.
  • Surround yourself with people who share similar fitness goals.
  • Make fitness fun so that you are more likely to stick with your program.
  • Get help in developing a plan that allows you to eat well and offers a variety of foods.

Read more about parallel construction.

By the way, the theory of parallelism applies to all sentences and paragraphs, not just lists of bullets.




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Life is short. Make sentences short, too.

chichen itza sign

Over a recent 492-word article in Parade magazine, the title called actor Al Pacino “A man of words and letters.”

The article concerns Pacino’s movie Danny Collins, in which the title character receives a letter decades after its mailing.

The article writer may be a man of words and letters, too — but he definitely uses too many words — 62 — in a single sentence. And that sentence concerns brevity. See if you can read it in a single breath. And please tell me if you understand it.

Keeping up with his children (14-year-old twins Anton and Olivia, with whom he shares custody with actress Beverly D’Angelo, and 25-year-old Julie) requires both commuting and communicating with a 21st-century method that this man of words has found he now prefers to letters, something that has morphed his love of lengthy sentences and long, flowing responses into something much shorter and snappier.

Live your life long and keep your sentences short. To paraphrase an expert: Convert your lengthy [why not just long?] sentences into something shorter and snappier.