Editing for Interest

Your essay will be read by people—real people. Most of them are teachers who know that essays can be lively, scintillating, and a joy to read. Like any readers, they will be put off by writing that is dull. Therefore, one of your goals on the SAT essay is to inject life into your prose by

• Using active instead of passive verbs

• Writing active instead of passive sentences

• Omitting needless words

Showing instead of telling


Active verbs differ from being verbs. Because active verbs describe or show movement, they excel all other words in pumping life into your prose. What”s more, they help you write more concisely.

Being verbs, in contrast, have almost no life in them. Their lifelessness is apparent in the common forms of the verb to be:






has been

had been

have been

will be

Used in a sentence, each being verb joins a subject to a predicate. In fact, a being verb functions much like an equal sign in an equation: “Five minus two is three” (5 – 2 = 3), or “Samantha was happy” (Samantha = happy), or “Your SAT scores are going up” (That = good news!). Because being verbs (and equal signs) show little life, use them sparingly.

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Whenever possible, replace being verbs with active verbs.

To check whether you rely too heavily on being verbs, check a few of your most recent essays. If more than, say, one out of four sentences uses a form of to be as the main verb, try the following revision techniques.

Substitute a new active verb for the being verb:

Being verb:

It is not easy for most students to write immortal essays.

Active verb:

Most students struggle to write immortal essays.

Extract an active verb from a noun in the sentence:

Being verb:

Monica was the winner of the essay contest.

Active verb:

Monica won the essay contest.

Extract an active verb from an adjective:

Being verb:

My afternoon at the ballgame was enjoyable.

Active verb:

I enjoyed my afternoon at the ballgame.

As you delete being verbs, you may observe that some sentences resist change. When that happens, try turning subjects into verbs and verbs into nouns. Try also to eliminate unnecessary phrases. A full-scale revision will often result in sentences that bear little resemblance to the original. At the same time, your verb-swapping efforts may root out excess words and improve your essay”s readability.

You may notice, however, that some nouns limit your options for using active verbs. For instance, you are pretty well stuck with a form of to be in any sentence that begins with The reason:

The reason that you should practice writing essays ______…

What verb other than is can be used to fill the blank? Very few. There are few verb options, too, when the subject of the sentence is thought, concept, idea, issue, way, cause, and several other abstract nouns. The same applies to sentences that begin with “There,” as in: “There is no way for you to do poorly on the SAT essay,” and often for sentences that begin with “It,” as in “It is a foregone conclusion that you”ll do well.”

In contrast, nouns that stand for specific places, people, events, and objects invite the use of active verbs. When a sentence contains a subject that can do something—a person, for example—you can never run out of verb choices.

As a bonus, concrete, easy-to-define nouns, when substituted for abstractions, tend to tighten and energize sentences:

Abstract subject:

The cause of Sharon”s worry was her lack of tuition money.

Definite subject:

Sharon worried about her lack of tuition money.

Abstract subject:

The issue behind the strike was the workers” demand for higher wages.

Definite subject:

The workers struck for higher wages.

Being verbs are not the only verbs that sap the life out of sentences. They share that distinction with several other verbs, including forms of to have, to come, to go, to make, to move, and to get—verbs with so many different uses that they creep into sentences virtually unnoticed. Webster”s International Dictionary lists sixteen different meanings for the verb get and a dozen more for make and move. It”s true that we can hardly do without these verbs, but use them only if you can swear that no other words will do. Otherwise, trade them in for more vivid verbs, as in:


The line to the box office moved very slowly.


The line crept (crawled, inched, poked) to the box office.

Note that by using a more animated verb, you eliminate the need for “very slowly,” which has suddenly become redundant.


The police officer gave drivers permission to turn left on red.


The police officer permitted drivers to turn left on red.

Note that this revision has created not just a more active sentence but one that contains fewer words—always a stylistic plus.

Practice in Using Active Verbs

Directions: Replace the weak, lifeless verbs in these sentences with stronger, active ones.

1. Shock was the feeling of most American people from the attack of 9/11.

2. In New York City, there were nearly three thousand people killed.

3. Afterwards, there was a controversy over who was to blame for America”s vulnerability to terrorism.

4. There was an effort made to strengthen homeland security.

5. Many people were willing to give up some of their rights in order to be secure.

6. The issue of how much freedom to give up for the sake of security is difficult to resolve.

7. The war in Afghanistan was a significant event that was a result of 9/11.

8. Sweatshirts and baggy pants was our manner of dress whenever we went out.

9. There was quite a lot of commotion because of there being an all-American high school basketball player playing in the game.

10. It is obvious that there should be more emphasis on math and science for the average college-bound student.


Active sentences strengthen prose; passive sentences weaken it. In an active sentence the person or thing performing an action is usually mentioned early in a sentence so that readers know right away who or what you are talking about. In some contexts, though, the actor is unknown or irrelevant. That”s when a passive sentence—a sentence structured in the passive voice—is more appropriate. For example:


The curtain was raised at 8:30 sharp.


At 8:30 sharp, a stagehand (or Maryanne, the production assistant) raised the curtain.

In the passive version, curtain time is the important fact. Who pulled the rope or pushed the button is beside the point.

Other occasions when a passive-voice sentence may be appropriate, or even preferable, include:

• When the point of the sentence is to reveal the identity of the actor:


Tommy, an eight-year-old boy, hacked into the agency”s computer system.


The agency”s computer system was hacked into by Tommy, an eight-year-old boy.

• When you want to conceal the actor.


Sorry, I lost the library book.


Sorry, the library book has been lost.

• When you want to avoid using gender-based pronouns.


Every member of the marching band must return his or her uniform.


Uniforms must be returned by every member of the marching band.

Transforming a passive sentence to an active one may take a bit of doing:

Six weeks were spent preparing for the spring carnival.

This sentence needs revision because it fails to tell who performed the action—that is, who prepared for the carnival. The following revision clears up the uncertainty:

Six weeks were spent preparing for the spring carnival by the cheerleaders.

This version contains more information than the original, but it still emphasizes the action instead of who performed the action. To make the transformation complete, say something like

The cheerleaders prepared for the spring carnival for six weeks.

In the active voice, this sentence gives the performers of the action top billing.

Why is the active voice better than the passive voice? Mainly because most events in life don”t just occur by themselves. Somebody does something; a person or thing acts. After all, burgers don”t just get eaten; people cook and devour them. Marriages don”t just happen; couples deliberately go out and marry each other. Goals don”t score, salmon don”t get caught, and wallets don”t get lost all by themselves. People do these things.

Good essay writers, taking advantage of readers” natural curiosity about others, strive to make the performer of the action the grammatical subject of their sentences:


The award was presented to Carrie by the town Rotary Club.


The town Rotary Club presented an award to Carrie.


Annapolis was attended by my brother, my cousin, and three of my uncles.


My brother, my cousin, and three uncles went to Annapolis.

As you prepare for the SAT, review your essays for passive sentences. Change them to active sentences unless you have a good reason not to.

Practice in Revising Passive Sentences

Directions: Please rewrite the following sentences, putting each in active voice.

1. The backyard was covered by dead leaves.

2. The crisis in the Middle East was discussed by us.

3. Friday”s quiz was failed because I had been at a play rehearsal every night that week.

4. Portland was flown to at the start of our weeklong vacation in Oregon.

5. The great white whale was pursued by Captain Ahab and his crew.

6. The newspaper is fetched by Fido every morning.

7. The decision to go to war was made by the president and his advisors.

8. Dinner was taken out by more than twenty customers on Friday night.

9. Five of Shakespeare”s plays were seen by our group in three days.

10. Normally, the brain is called on by the body before you do something physical.


Never use two words when one will do. Tell your readers quickly and directly what you have to say. Brevity works best. Cut out needless words. Readers value economy.

Stop! Have you noticed that the previous paragraph disregards the very advice it dispenses? Do you see repetition and redundancy? Couldn”t the point have been made more briefly and succinctly?

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Sentences should be firm and tight. Omit needless words!

Hold it, again! Look at that last phrase, briefly and succinctly. Aha! Another redundancy. The author should have used one, but not both, adverbs.

Here”s a word to the wise:

You should work through all of the sentences you write by examining each one and crossing out all the words you don”t definitely need.

In truth, that”s twenty-four words to the wise—probably more than are needed.

Go through every sentence you write and cross out unnecessary words.

That”s better—eleven words of free advice, but still too many. The sentence could be trimmed still further:

Cut unnecessary words out of every sentence.

This seven-word model is less than a third of the original twenty-four word clunker. But it can be pared even more:

Omit needless words.

Your sentences, like muscles, should be firm and tight. In lean writing, every word counts. To trim fat, wring your sentences through this four-step word trimmer:

1. Look for repetition. Then combine sentences.


Elena took Jesse to the movies. Jesse is Elena”s brother. (10 words)


Elena took her brother Jesse to the movies. (8 words)

Granted, cutting ten words to eight may not seem like much. But consider that it”s a 20 percent reduction, and in a 500-word essay, a 20 percent reduction amounts to 100 words, the equivalent of a whole paragraph.


When Maria was sixteen years of age she accepted a position at Wilkens” Fabrics. In this position she learned about fabrics and about how to handle customers. (27)


At sixteen years old, Maria accepted a position at Wilkens” Fabrics, where she learned about fabrics and handling customers. (19)


Working at Wilkens” Fabrics at age sixteen, Maria learned to handle both fabrics and customers. (15)

2. Look for telltale words like which, who, that, thing, all. They often signify the presence of fat.


Edison was a man who was obsessed by the wonders of electricity. (12)


The wonders of electricity obsessed Edison. (6)

Changing the grammatical subject and replacing was with an active verb halved the word count.


What he most wanted was that the terrorists would release the hostages. (12)


He most wanted the terrorists to release the hostages. (9)

3. Hunt for phrases that add words but no meaning, such as the fact that, due to the fact that, at this point in time, at the present time, and comparable usages.


Hamlet returned home as a result of his father”s death. (10)


Hamlet returned home because his father died. (7).


The troops were in danger due the fact that mines had been planted in the field. (16)


The mine field endangered the troops. (6)

Other Fat Phrases


what I mean is

I mean

on account of, as a result of


in the final analysis


few and far between


each and every one


this is a subject that

this subject

ten in number


at the age of six years old

at age six

most unique


true fact


biography of her life


in regard to, with regard to,


in relation to, with respect to

A rich vocabulary can also help turn flabby sentences into tight ones:


Use a tool with a sharp point that pokes holes in leather. (12)


Use an awl. (3)


Sometimes his grandfather had a cheerful and dynamic personality, but at other times he withdrew into himself and became angry and depressed. (22)


His grandfather suffered from bipolar disorder. (6)

4. Search for redundancies. Innumerable words are wasted on reiteration of what has already been stated, on repeating the obvious, on restating ideas, on saying the same thing again and again and over and over, driving readers to the brink of madness.


A cloud of black soot rose up to the sky. (10)

Soot, by definition, is black, and rising clouds can only go up.


A cloud of soot rose to the sky. (8)


He had a smile on his face. (7)

Where else but on a face would a smile appear?


He wore a smile. (4)


After carefully scrutinizing the X-ray, the doctor seemed fully engrossed in her own train of thought. (16)

Scrutinize means “to study carefully,” and engrossed means “to think fully.” Also, her own train of thought is nonsensical because no one can think others” thoughts.


After scrutinizing the X-ray, the doctor seemed engrossed in thought. (10)

After you have pared your sentences to the bone, re-read what remains and discard still more by tracking down little words like the, a, an, up, down, its, and and. Even though it may hurt to take out what you worked hard to put in, don”t whine. Just grit your teeth and do it!

Practice in Trimming Needless Words


Directions: Tighten these sentences, but preserve their meaning.

1. The author, a man named Peter Jenkins, wrote a book with the title A Walk Across America, about walking across America, which he accomplished after walking twenty-five miles a day in order to prepare for his walk across America.

2. There is no reason for the chairperson of the committee, who is Carolyn Welles, to take offense at my suggestion, which is aimed at trying to make the meetings more productive and useful to the entire student body at large.

3. Molly was elected to be the editor of the yearbook in spite of the fact that her grades in writing in English courses are really not very good at all.

4. Some kinds of criticism are good, but other kinds of criticism do more harm than good. Harmful criticism is criticism that tears a person down instead of helping the person overcome or deal with a problem.

5. Every American should have a good knowledge of our country, and the best way to gain a good knowledge and familiarity with the United States is to visit and see places of historic interest and significance to our country.


Directions: This wordy paragraph appeared in an essay that advocated gaining weight. Please trim its fat.

Such weight-gaining ideas can be used to good advantage by each and every man, woman, and child who is interested in adding pounds of weight to his or her body. They are the latest, most up-to-date set of procedures available anywhere. Owing to the fact that health experts and authorities believe that it is better to be underweight than it is to be overweight, ideas for putting on weight are generally thought to be jokes not taken seriously, which is the reason why such ideas are kept under wraps and not publicized very widely or broadly. Yet, there are many people of all kinds who need to gain weight for a variety of diverse reasons. Here is a quotation that Slim Snyder, who is a graduate of Stanford University, stated during a speech he gave at a meeting of people gathered together at a health conference recently: “Lean people are victims of discrimination, just as obese people are.”

For additional practice in eliminating wordiness, turn to Part V.


Remember the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words? Whether that”s true is arguable, but the point is not. Words help readers see. Therefore, show more than you tell ! Instead of describing your uncle as “absent-minded,” show him stepping into his morning shower dressed in his pj”s. Rather than telling the reader that your room is “a mess,” show the pile of wrinkled clothes in the corner and the books and Snickers wrappers scattered on the floor next to your unmade futon. The same principle applies to smells: “Her breath was foul with the stench of stale whiskey.” To sounds: “the growl of a chain saw in the distance.” To touch: “the feel of cool linen bed sheets.” And to tastes: “a cold, sweet drink of spring water on a scorching summer day.” In short, showing recreates experience for the reader, ultimately making the prose more interesting.


I was happy after my meeting with Mr. Blair.


I bolted from Mr. Blair”s office, bounded down the steps four at a time, and shouted into the wind, “Hurray, I did it.”


My teacher, Mr. Franks, doesn”t care to hear that I don”t have the time to do math homework after school.


When I explained to Mr. Franks that I”m kept from math homework by driving my brother Timmy to piano lessons or karate, by yearbook meetings on Tuesdays, by Peer Leaders and Students Against Driving Drunk, by French tutoring, and by a part-time job at the florist, he muttered, “That”s your problem.”

No one expects you to load all your essays with a profusion of striking images that show instead of tell. The fact is that writers struggle for years to perfect the technique. Moreover, too much detail can be as unproductive as too little. A balance is best. No one can tell you exactly how to achieve that balance. You need time to get the feel of it, like riding a bike or doing a back flip. The context, as well as your judgment of a reader”s need to know, should determine how detailed you need to be. To develop the knack, study a written passage that you admire. Pick out both details and broad statements. For practice, use the passage as a model for writing a paragraph of your own.

Practice in Showing Instead of Telling

Directions: Revise the prose of the telling samples into showing examples.

1. Telling: Mike is very tall.


2. Telling: After she won, she experienced a wonderful and unique feeling that made her want to win again.



3. Telling: The store was a quaint old place.



4. Telling: It smelled just the way a beach is supposed to smell.



5. Telling: The class is out of control.



6. Telling: Pioneers had a hard time.



7. Telling: The cabin was really run down.



8. Telling: The air pollution was sickening.



9. Telling: The speech stirred the crowd.



10. Telling: Mary Jane”s mother is obsessed by cleanliness.