Use Active Verbs to Enliven Recipes

Aug 272013
 

Cooking is about action, and that should come across vigorously in your recipe writing.

Last week I aroused passions about passive voice in recipes, not only here in the comments but on Facebook and Twitter.

My point was that cooking is an activity, so we need direct language that shows action. Active verbs are the ticket, an effective and efficient way to show movement.

In these examples below, you won’t find a whiff of passive voice. There is also no use of “you,” which some readers found objectionable. Others pointed out that active verbs are imperative, where the writer commands readers to action by implication. (Haven’t you always wanted to command?)

I plucked these examples from my bookshelf. Note how many verbs writers crams into a paragraph. It’s like watching a movie, sports event or ballet:

1. Julia Child

Scoop (peppers) into mixing bowl. Spread both sides of the bread with mustard, film frying pan with 1/8 inch more oil, and brown bread light lightly on both sides. Dice the bread and add to the bowl; stir in the garlic, egg and salt and pepper to taste.

2. Jane Grigson

Cut the rabbit or chicken in serving pieces, and turn it in the flour. Place in a pie dish. Fry onions and mushrooms until lightly coloured, then add them with their juices. Tuck the grilled bacon and the quartered hard-boiled eggs into the gaps. Pour in a half pint of stock. Cover with pastry…and brush with beaten egg.

3. Richard Olney

Cut off the tough, dark-green parts of the leeks and discard them. Slit the remaining parts halfway down to facilitate washing them, and when they are well washed, cut each in 2 to separate the greenish parts from the white of the leek. Put the white parts aside and coarsely chop the green parts. Peel the onions, put 2 aside and coarsely chop the third. Crush the 4-5 cloves of garlic.

4. Alice Medrich

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it stand until it is pliable enough to roll without cracking. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 14-15-inch circle about 1/8-inch thick, rotating and dusting the surface with flour to keep it from sticking. Brush the excess flour from the rolled-out circle, fold the circle into quarters, and transfer it to the pie pan. Unfold, easing the pastry into the pan without stretching it. Trim the overhang to about 1 inch. Turn the excess dough under and flute or crimp the edge.

5. James Oseland

Place the chicken, breast side up, in a shallow roasting pan. Scatter the onions around the chicken, making sure that 1 or 2 halves remain inside the cavity. Rub the chicken inside and out with the softened butter. Pour the remaining marinade over the chicken, placing the cinnamon sticks and a few of the cloves inside the cavity. Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil.

Could you see the cooking happen, right before your eyes? So check your recipes to see how you compare in the active verb count department. And try not to rely on the same verbs repeatedly. The next time you find yourself writing”add” or “use” for the millionth time, let these examples inspire you to come up with a “scatter” or “tuck.”

Now, please tell me: what are your favorite active verbs?

(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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  59 Responses to “Use Active Verbs to Enliven Recipes”

  1. I’m always amused at how British writers use the term “tip” in recipes to indicate pouring.

  2. Just saw this post – thanks for the comparisons, it’s nice to have excerpts from some of the greats… love your book, I started my food blog 2 months ago and it really has helped me tremendously..

  3. Thanks for the information. I am going to go through my recipes and see what verbs I can change. I like to use the verb ‘drizzle’.

    • Okay great. A while ago I recall someone complaining in a blog post about the incorrect use of drizzle. I tried to find the post but I couldn’t.

  4. Thank you. And please add NOT to say cut YOUR chicken or turn YOUR stove on or any other reduntant YOUR modifiers. Those are a complete turnoff. Whose other than our own ingredients or implements would we be working with anyway?

    • Right, I never suggest that. This reminds me of my mother-in-law, who always talked about going to a restaurant to have “my lamb chops” or “my prime rib.” I never got that.

  5. I think we do a real disservice to home cooks if we can’t put in an occasional “throw” “chuck” or “shred”. Now before you think that makes me a violent cooking teacher, I also love using the verbs “massage” and “taste”. Always taste.

    • It sounds like a football game, doesn’t it? Very masculine.

      And then you throw in “massage” and “taste” for contrast. They are quite feminine.

  6. Excellent post Dianne – I love active words!

  7. Great post. I read this on active verbs and the one on passive instructions.
    I really need to think about them and how to apply them in my future writing. Writing mainly in Italian, I write in a “you” tone to maintain a sort of personal touch with the reader of my blog. In my blog, I desire to involve readers as much as possible even in recipe instructions. While for magazines, I point on active verbs and imperative sentences.
    Can the choice between imperative and informal tone be different according to our media?

    • Good question. Blogs are more casual and can tolerate more informal language, such as the use of you. That doesn’t mean you should overdo it, of course.

      • Rosella and Diane, in Italian you can’t say a verb without including who you are directing it to (her, him, them, or a fancy person you would address in a formal tone) – however, I think the take-away for you would be to think about using more variety and color about the action you’re asking them to do.

        My LEAST favorite recipe instruction – and I see this in all the top Italian food magazines is.

        “Cook it until it’s done.”

        When I run into that I always yell “WTF? Is it an hour or 10 minutes? How should it look and feel ?!?” but it comes out more like “Porcocanedellamiseria quanto ci vogliono? 10 minuti o un’ora? Come cavolo posso capire quando e’ cotto?”

        Personally, I really like and appreciate thoughtfull written recipes written in “tu” (you).

        Ciao,

        L

        • “Cook until it’s done” is ridiculous. I’m with you.

          Re recipes written addressed to “you,” there’s nothing wrong with it. You just don’t want to overdo it.

  8. You’ve set me thinking. I’m going to be checking all my work to make sure I’ve selected the best active verbs now. Thanks Dianne.

  9. I’m a little confused! Last week, you gave these examples:

    <<I do my best to remove it when I edit. Yet I read dozens of published recipe instructions like this in prestigious publications and award-winning cookbooks:

    <<Cook until all of the broth has been added.
    <<Roast until the beets are tender and can be pierced with a knife.

    <<These are examples of passive voice because readers don’t know who is taking action. Um, wouldn’t it be them? Why not speak to them directly? If I changed these instructions to active voice, they would read like this:

    << Cook until you’ve added all the broth.
    <<Roast until the beets are tender and you can pierce them with a knife.

    You made these instructions active by adding the subject "you." Yet, this week, you caution us against using "you" in our writing. How would you change the above, again??

    For those of us who are inadvertent users of passive voice (and still learning!), can you please clarify? Thank you!

    • I don’t have a problem with using “you” in the instructions. But because I gave two rewrites that used “you” in my last post, some readers thought I was suggesting they use “you” all the time. I wasn’t. I wanted to clarify my position in this post.

      So to conclude, “you” is fine once in a while. But active verbs are better, because 1. they help people visualize the process of cooking more vividly, 2. they are a way to move the writing forward for readers, and 3. they make your writing more exciting.

  10. Dianne….I love your posts they have taught me much about writing and make me feel that I can improve when I use your suggestions and instructions…
    Thank you for sharing all your knowledge about writing…

  11. Active verbs definitely create more excitement, movement, action. Thanks for clarifying active voice this week, I left a bit confused after last week’s post. Great examples.

  12. So, so helpful, Dianne! I still think there is a time and place for “you” and some passive voice in recipes, but these examples are such eye-openers! I loved the action-packed Julia Child recipe, I had never noticed how many verbs she uses. And you’re right, I can really hear and see the recipe as it’s being cooked.
    This is a keeper of a post- I know I’ll be referring to it again. Thanks for the help.

    • My pleasure, Ruthy. It was fun to find these examples — and I read through a lot of fairly boring recipes, let me tell you. Reading through Julia Child always makes me realize why Child was such a treasure as a recipe writer. She’s no-nonsense yet passionate, knows her stuff, and she had a great time.

  13. These are some great examples, Dianne!

  14. Yea! Thanks for the follow-up, Dianne. I appreciate how your blog posts go deeper into a single subject.

    • I don’t usually go into a kind of Part II, but I felt like I screwed up a little bit last week. Thank you, Rita.

  15. Mmm, active verbs. You were the first to open my eyes on how many “add” and “mix” words were in my recipes, and I’ve always tried to diversify. Thanks for this wonderful reminder, Dianne.

    My favorite active verbs at the moment are “fold in”, “incorporate” and “transfer.” I’m using them so much that I may have to start “tucking” and “scattering”

    Ciao
    Eleonora

  16. Very much enjoying the simple focus of the verb when writing recipes as I now realize I have NOT been adding any flavour and texture to my recipes with the oversimplification of my verb usage. I am going to stop that right now.
    :)
    V

  17. I am a total novice to all of this. I can see how the use of an active voice would be the right thing to use in a given circumstances and vice versa. I have sent this off to my editor to use in regards to my own recipes. Thank for this.

    • Your editor should know all about passive vs. active voice, Susan. Regarding word choices, that is up to you. I don’t think I would edit someone else’s recipe to replace “Place the onions in a pot” with “Dump the onions in a pot.” It’s quite individual.

  18. Thank you so much for this post. Exactly what I needed to focus on for creating my recipes and my blog posts.

  19. Leave the salad and dressing in a bowl to get acquainted, casually tossing it about.

  20. […] point was that cooking is an activity, so we need direct language that shows action. Active verbs are the ticket, an effective and […]

  21. […] point was that cooking is an activity, so we need direct language that shows action. Active verbs are the ticket, an effective and […]

  22. Love these examples (and seeing a couple of my favorite cookbook authors represented!). I also wanted to pop over to thank you for the comment on my blog–I’m really not sure why the trackback would have appeared just now (the post was written in 2010!!!), but am assuming it’s because the blog just underwent an upgrade and redesign, and perhaps some of the pingbacks are repeating themselves? No idea. In any case, much appreciated! :)

  23. These are really great examples! Thanks, Dianne! When I write a recipe – like when I write a story – I am very conscious of repetition and avoid like the devil using the same words too often or two close together. But there seem to be exceptions. I just read through the recipe that will go up on my blog later this week and I use the verb “whisk” several times because, frankly, what can it be replaced with? Stirring isn’t brisk enough… whipping sounds mechanical (like with beaters)… etc. Sometimes one just needs (out of necessity) to say it like it is.

    On the other hand, the more variety we have, the more fun and colorful our language is, the more attractive the piece of writing, whether a text, story or recipe. I love words like “tuck”, “drizzle”, “dust”, “whip”….

    • Thanks Jamie. I am grateful to have such thoughtful comments from you with regularity.

      Maybe you can use “beat” or “whip” instead of whisk each time? I know what you mean, but it’s best not to be too repetitive.

  24. I really work on trying to use verbs that make my – and my readers – mouth water. “Slather” and “smear” are current favorites.

  25. I get tired of chefs saying their ingredients marry each other. Hell! Mine are having sex! But, of course, I don’t write that in my blog… Great post!

  26. Hey dianne! How have you been? I’ll admit I haven’t been checking your blog for quite a while, although every few months I refer back to your book “Will Write for Food” and it always encourages and inspires me! especially the “show, not tell” advice!

    Love that you picked up the point on using active verbs. thanks for the great tip! My blog has evolved quite a bit since the last time you checked on it and gave me some advice over email. So I’m really appreciate of all your work/book/blog!

    big hug + sooo many thanks,
    felicia

    • Hello Felicia! Thanks for referring to my book from time to time. I’m glad you still find something of value there.

      You know, you can subscribe to my blog and then you won’t miss things. It’s only 4 posts a month. I can’t stand signing up for blogs when I get something in my email every other day.

      I hope your blog is going well. I have never thought of combining chocolate and avocado, so I’m intrigued by your latest post.

  27. My favorite active verbs are tumble, swirl and scatter. When my editor started to remove them all from my manuscript I told her that I thought my recipes looked boring and de-void of my personality.

    I mean, c’mon! Who “pours” a bowl of brussels sprouts!!

    She put them back and wasn’t happy about it, but I am. Hopefully they’ll endure through the publisher’s copy editor.

    Ciao,

    L

    • I remember having this same conversation with a famous cookbook writer, who said a copy editor took out all her distinctive language. Like you, she fought to get it all put back in, and she prevailed!

  28. As always great, thought-provoking, educational information Dianne. Thank you. Very timely too, as I am just coming through writing a cookbook. It was interesting to see how the editor edited the recipes of all three chefs. I know she had to do it to blend our voices into one for the reader. It’s been a fun process. Makes me think about my posts too. I’ll be double checking my own work, making sure I have enough action words.

    Laura…good for you with insisting your voice stayed! Your readers would miss that!

    • Interesting about the editor’s edits. That’s tough with three chefs, to get one consistent voice.

      Happy to have given you something to think about, Sally.

  29. Dianne, I was just introduced to your blog and am loving reading through your posts. They are so informative for wannabe food writers like me. This post is especially helpful as I sometimes bore even myself with the overuse of ‘Add’ in my recipes.
    Thanks for the great tips!

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