Writing Tips and Tricks: Strong Verbs

As a homeschool family. we're part of a private school that meets weekly. The moms all teach the classes, and it's a screaming awesome opportunity for all of us. I get to chat and socialize and learn from the other moms; my kids get to be around their peers and take classes from someone other than me; we all build each other and it's a stellar environment!

In that group, I teach the eight to ten year olds' writing class. These young kids are learning things I didn't learn until I got into college--some serious grammar, how to read a source text, select keywords from that source and then rewrite the text using their own words based on their keyword outlines. (It's called IEW Writing, if anyone is interested!)

As they rewrite their material, they are given certain guidelines to include in their writing, such as -ly adverbs, sentence openers, etc. One of the guidelines is what the program calls "banned words." They "ban" certain words from their papers so the kids can learn to use strong verbs.


This has really stuck out to me because in my writing studies and courses, in rejection letters I've received from agents, in critiques from betas and editors, I was taught the same thing! Verbs add to a story's imagery. They add to the emotion. ONE word can have a HUGE impact on the entire sentence.

In writing--especially in novel-writing--it's vital to make every word count. To be compact, to show, not tell, and using strong verbs can help you accomplish every single one of these aims. So here are a couple things to think about as you're writing and editing your book.

1. Think of what kind of scene you're writing. 

We want our stories to be driven, to keep tension, to absolutely forbid readers from putting them down. Verbs can wrangle in a reader and tether them to the page.

ACTION scenes need to pack a punch! Instead of having your character run, why not sprint? Why not scurry or storm to the conflict? Thunder crackling, booming, teeth clenched. You can also use objects around them to convey the tension you want. Doors hammering into walls, glass objects shattering to the floor. These give the reader the idea that a character is angry or surprised without actually saying, "He was surprised." (Eliminates that "be" verb there...I'll get to that in a minute...)

PENSIVE scenes need to give readers time to slow down. Use more calming, contemplative words for these, so that readers can still feel the emotion of the scene. Temperature cooling, muscles relaxing and going supple, minds retreating for a character to inspect his or her own thoughts.

ROMANTIC scenes need need need to have a different kind of tension. You want strong verbs the same way you would in any other scene, but these are more related to internal sensations. Stomach knotting, tingle (I have to say, I'm guilty of overusing tingle! I have to edit it out a lot.), tension pulsing in the air between the love interests. There are so many options!

CONVERSATION scenes are one of those tricky ones. For my writing class, "said" is one of the kids' banned words! We go through an entire list of synonyms so they have their own resource to turn to when trying to decide what to use instead. Mused, exclaimed, proclaimed, declared, you get the idea.

In writing a novel, though, said is one of those that you leave alone. It blends in a reader's mind, and when they're immersed in the story, oftentimes they don't even notice you've used it. They're taking in the drama, the dialogue, the tension, the intensity, however you've written your scene. Once in a while, using a different word than said is so perfect. Shouted, mused, muttered. These can let us know how a character is responding. But if you overdo and use too elaborate verbs too often, they'll pull a reader out of the story, which is the last thing we want.

2. The dreaded "Be" verb.

This is tricky. The advice here is to avoid using the word "was." But I've tried, and sometimes there isn't a better way to say something!

It's a guideline. Try to replace was with something stronger. In many cases, it may take rearranging your sentence:

  • It was cold. 
  • Cold  air bit through her jacket. 

See how a strong verb can give a completely different sense to the scene? I moved "cold air" to be the subject of the sentence, thus allowing myself to utilize a strong verb in place of the conjugated "be."

Adding more description and lengthening your sentence can also be a solution:

  • The lake was beautiful. 
  • The lake's blue water glistened beneath the sunlight. Trees speckled the lake's edge, framing it with shades of green and gold. 

3. Make verbs "active" rather than "passive."

Another way to eliminate "was" is to make your sentences more active, rather than passive. My editor gets me for this one sometimes!

  • He was eating in silence. 
  • He ate in silence. 

Often, this is a quick fix and we just need to be aware that we're using the "was -ing" format. Again, this isn't an absolute; you don't have to change every single one. But just be aware of them.

How to find strong verbs? 

A thesaurus is your friend! You can right-click on the word and it will give a list of synonyms. Be careful as you do this, because sometimes context plays a part in whether or not the verb is the correct one for the message your sentence is trying to convey. My editor gets me on this sometimes because I'll pick a verb that sounds like what I want, but she'll point out it actually means something slightly different.

You can make yourself a go-to list of words as well, which is extremely helpful. Like this:

Instead of walked, use:  rambled, wandered, straggled, limped, pranced, roved, strayed, paced, hiked etc.

Instead of asked, use: implored, probed, begged, pleaded, demanded

Instead of made, use: generated, formed, concocted, produced, wove, forged, hatched carved

One last thing: Pinterest is your friend! You can find all kinds of Active Verb Cheatsheets there. I found THIS ONE that lists 115 different words to use in place of "walk."

That's all for today's tip! Tell me what your thoughts are on strong verbs--have you found they help to tighten and enhance your writing? 

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