Perfecting a manuscript means scrutinizing every sentence. Does each word deserve a place in the sentence? Does the sentence convey the action, viewpoint, meaning, and mood you intended? Verbs play a key role in building effective sentences, so pay close attention to them as you revise and polish. Consider the verb “scrutinizing” in Line 1 of this blog, for example. The words “read,” “look at,” “review,” or “check” don’t express quite the same meaning.
Writing is about making choices, and we have endless verbs to choose from as we craft our fiction and nonfiction. These tips can help you fine-tune your verbs in ways that enrich the content and style.
Tip 1: Choose specific, vivid verbs.
Think about the image you want to create for readers. Which verbs will best define the action, setting, and/or character(s)? Notice how the verb choices affect these sentences:
Elvin went down the driveway and got the newspaper.
Elvin sprinted down the driveway and grabbed the newspaper.
She tried to catch the dog but it got away from her in the backyard.
She chased after the dog, but it zoomed across the backyard.
Verbs enhance descriptive passages as well. The verbs in these sentences aim to help readers experience sensory details in the scenes:
Gulls squawked as they hovered above the crashing waves.
The hikers stomped the snow off their boots and collapsed near the crackling fire.
Forms of the following verbs tend to be bland:
1. The painting was next to the clock.
1a. The painting hung next to the clock.
2. He got a pay raise.
2a. He earned a pay raise.
3. Vince looked at Mirella and she looked back.
3a. Vince and Mirella exchanged glances.
Also watch for the phrases “there are, there were, there is” and the like. They often lead to weak verb forms. Notice how a change in wording improves the following sentence:
There was a weird green light shining from the crack beneath the door.
A weird green light shone in the crack beneath the door.
While revising Outlander, author Diana Gabaldon changed the verb form and structure of this sentence to polish her work:
Original: There was a trickle of rudely dressed people, heading toward the castle.
Revised: A trickle of rudely dressed people headed toward the castle.
Tip #2: Vivid verbs can replace verb/adverb combinations.
Vivid verbs are often more effective than a verb/adverb combination. Do any of your characters speak quietly? Could they murmur, mumble, mutter, whisper, or hiss instead?
1. He came into the room hurriedly
1a. He hurried into the room.
2. “Don’t you dare!” she said angrily.
2a. “Don’t you dare!” she snapped.
Tip #3: Choose active verbs.
It’s usually more effective to write in active voice, rather than passive. Passive verb phrases show what was “done” to a subject, rather than someone or something taking action. Forms of the word “was” often appear in passive verb phrases. These examples change passive verbs to active verbs while also using more vivid verbs:
1. Towering oaks were pulled from the ground by strong hurricane winds.
1a. Strong hurricane winds yanked towering oaks from the ground.
2. She was hit in the head by a stray volleyball.
2a. A stray volleyball smacked her in the head.
Other passive verb phrases contain a progressive form of a verb, including those ending with the letters –ing. Simple past tense can produce a more energetic sentence. For example, we can strengthen the sentence “He was relaxing on the beach while his friends were surfing” by writing “He relaxed on the beach while his friends surfed.”
Tip #4: Choose verbs that enhance tone and mood.
Consider the sounds and “feeling” of each verb choice. Do they suit the tone of your writing and the mood you want to create—e.g. upbeat, smooth, tense, rugged, peaceful, frustrated, mournful, hurried, relaxed? We would choose different words to describe the way sun shines in a happy scene versus a scene that feels scary, sad, or tired. Here’s another example:
1. Gregg drank his coffee.
2. Gregg guzzled his coffee.
3. Gregg forced down his coffee.
4. Gregg savored his coffee.
Tip #5: Use verbs to develop characters.
Think about characters as you fine-tune verbs. Verbs can reflect their personalities, backgrounds, education levels, professions, attitudes, and other traits. This obviously affects the dialogue in your fiction. A character from one part of the U.S. might ask someone to “stop your belly-aching” or tell a friend “your baby favors his mama” (meaning that’s who the baby resembles, not prefers). A self-confident character tends to use different words than an insecure character. Let verbs help readers get to know your characters and their thoughts and feelings.
Tip #6: Take It Up a Notch?
Verbs can be extra creative, and we can even invent them. Remember when Google was just a noun? Now you can Google a topic. Myriad words, including trash, eyeball, doctor, access, and porch are now used as both nouns and verbs. So, maybe your character will Rosetta-Stone her way through Europe, monkey-shine his way to notoriety, brownie-point her way to a promotion, or veganize his kitchen?
Sometimes being creative means breaking the so-called “rules.” Charles Dickens used the word “was” multiple times in the opening for his novel A Tale of Two Cities, but through skill and deliberation he created one of the most memorable paragraphs in literature.
Tip #7: Don’t overwrite.
As with any area of our writing, we don’t want to go overboard. Too many fancy, diverse verbs can distract readers rather than add life and variety. This applies to words used in speaker tag lines (dialogue attributions), too. Using our writer’s eyes, ears, and judgment can help us finalize our verb choices.
Sharpen Your Skills
1. Be a reader—and read like a writer. Notice how verbs work in the fiction or nonfiction you read. Why did the author choose a particular verb, and how does it affect you, the reader? Would you choose that verb or something else?
2. “Collect” verbs that can power your writing. A thesaurus is useful, but always consider shades of meaning when you read a list of synonyms.
3. Practice verb power. As you observe people and events in daily life, think about how you would describe them using vivid, specific verbs.
Fine-tuning verbs can be one of the most creative and rewarding stages in the revision process. It can also sharpen our skills in ways that make each new manuscript stronger.
Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised and polished a 230,000-word book for adults.