How to beef up your verbs

Word count: 653 words

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Today I answer a question from a reader who wants to beef up her verbs. What do I suggest to help? Read on to learn more….

A reader named Linda submitted the following question to the Publication Coach:

I subscribe to your Power Writing newsletter and have noticed a recurring theme is the use of good verbs. I sure could use some help with verbs; I wish to get rid of the weak and embrace the powerful. Can you recommend any resources?

Good for you, Linda, for identifying one of the key challenges facing all writers — how to beef up verbs. I wish I could suggest a handy-dandy reference book — you know, something like 1,500 Words of Action, or The Victorious Verb. Sadly, neither book exists.

I had coffee yesterday with a good friend of mine who is a talented writer and she commented, “too bad you can’t buy verbs by the dozen!” Indeed.

I do have some suggestions for you, though. Number 1 is that you should look for powerful verbs in your own reading and then — here’s the important part — write them down! Do this on your computer to make it easier. Just set up a Word document name it something like Sensational Verbs and copy out sentences you’ve noticed where a verb is exercised in a particularly effective manner. Be sure to note the source. Of course you must also read this document periodically — ideally, just before you sit down to write.

I’ve noticed that sensational verbs are often slightly unusual or, at least, regular words used in an unusual context. For example, you used the verb “embrace” in your question, yet you weren’t writing about a pair of lovers. You were writing about words! I wrote “exercised” to describe verbs and yet note the utter absence of sneakers or towels.

Here is a paragraph from a Wall Street Journal article that appeared shortly after 9-11 (I pulled it from the terrific book Floating Off the Page, Ken Wells (ed), 2002):

Emma Thornton still shows up for work at 5 am each day in her blue slacks, pinstripe shirt and rubber-soled shoes. A letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, she still dutifully sorts all the mail addressed to “One World Trade Center,” and primes it for delivery.

I like the weariness of the verb “shows up.” It sounds tiresome and vexing. “Sorts” is a fairly plain verb but it does what it says and is rendered more perfect for this sentence by the adverb “dutifully.” (Normally, I oppose adverbs but I also believe every rule is made to be broken!) The sensational verb for me, though, is “primes.” It encompasses “prepares” while simultaneously carrying the suggestion of importance (e.g. a prime number), demonstrating the letter worker’s intense dedication to her job.

All this advice notwithstanding, you don’t want to try too hard with verbs. Be very careful not to use them ostentatiously in a manner that is almost, but, regrettably, not quite, right. This is also known as “over-writing” and you want to avoid it.

Some other resources you might consult are:

A good printed thesaurus. My favourite is The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale. It’s set up like a dictionary and it’s very easy to use. Very detailed, as well.

An online thesaurus. I like Visual Thesaurus, which I’ve used for the last three years or so. There is a desktop edition ($39.95) and an online edition ($19.95/yr) and it’s available for both PCs and Macs.

Finally, here is an exercise you might try. Take a piece you’ve written on the computer and use your Control + F key to search out all forms of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were, will be etc.) and try to eliminate them.

Imprecise writing is often riddled with forms of “to be.” Stamp it out! Thanks so much, Linda, for your thoughtful and interesting question.