Improve Your Writing with Strong Verbs

Have you ever read a novel and been impressed with the originality of the author’s use of verbs? One of the hallmarks of good fiction is the use of strong, original verbs. Yet how does one go about finding these verbs when our daily lives are most often assaulted with weak variations of “to be” from every angle? When I read a novel full of good verbs I sigh heavily and lament that I am not a good verb finder.

But of late I have deduced that my inability to find good verbs is a result of laziness. I hate when that happens and I discover that something I thought was a congenital trait is actually because I am slothful.

Why laziness? Because it takes more effort to pull out the thesaurus and look up a word then it does to hit Shift F7 and use the lame Word synonym finder. And because it takes consistent exertion to look for verbs in your daily travels and readings, and most important, when you findthem, write them down. It takes energy to drag yourself out of the rut of using plain, ordinary words and passive verbs.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Perhaps at this point you might be asking, what, exactly is a strong verb? Let us take a look:

  • All variants of the verb to be are weak verbs. (Sorry, to be it is a harsh judgment, but it must be said.) Poor old to be is so over-used that it does not pull up any fresh imagery (or any image at all). To be is the work horse of the verb world,
  • and work horses age early and get tired and sick and feeble. So send your to bes out to pasture and find some young fresh fillies, or colts if you prefer.
  • Verbs with an ing ending are weak verbs. Yes, I know, the justification for using the ing ending is that it indicates time passing. Such as “I was reading while I waited for the train.” However, a simple ed ending accomplishes the same thing in a crisper fashion: “I read while I waited for the train.” I have a tragic propensity to fall in love with ing endings and so once in awhile, I must whip myself soundly and rid my manuscript of as many of them as possible. Put those ing endings out in the back 40 with the workhorse to bes, where they can have AARP parties together
  • Verbs based on nouns are strong verbs. A fun verb exercise is to sit in a room, look around and start naming every noun you see. What you’ll discover is that many of our most beloved verbs are based on nouns. And in the process of turning nouns into verbs, you might stretch your mind a bit to discover some hot new verbs.
  • Strong verbs stand alone, on their own two feet. They don’t need helpers like had, or would, or any other words that exist mostly to suck up to the handsome strong verbs. For instance, “The policeman had run so fast he was out of breath.” How about “The policeman ran so fast he was out of breath,” instead? You get the gist. Banish the helper verbs. They can rent the room next to the AARP verbs and hold a wake for themselves.
Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

Have a look at your current writing project. What kinds of verbs do you see? If you find lots of boring, ho-hum verbs, it is time to get serious about improving them. Every time you read an interesting verb, be it in a novel, or a blog, or on your phone, write it down. Keep a running list on your mobile, and a file on your computer. Use Evernote or OneNote or whatever app you prefer. Note verbs on index cards and look up the definition later. Just employing this one habit will get you more focused on good verbs. And now use them! Scour your manuscripts for weak, boring verbs and replace them. (But not when you are writing a discovery draft. Detail work like this is for the final polish)

Verb work will go a long way toward improving your writing.

Novelist, writing teacher, coach. Workshops in France, Portland, and virtually. Sign up for weekly love letters and get a free Ebook:

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