Of all parts of speech, verbs carry the greatest potential to energize sentences. The more we load meaning into them, the stronger our writing.
The last Muze Tap suggested one way to identify lazy verbs in a first draft: follow the adverbs. With their tell-tale –ly endings, adverbs represent an attempt to clarify and intensify the action: ate hungrily; looked carefully. Why not load the clarity and intensity into the verb itself: devoured; studied?*
Here’s another way to enhance your verbs: go over a piece of writing-in-process and circle forms of to be—is, was, are, were. Challenge yourself to rewrite their sentences in a way that will eliminate these inert place-holders.
- There were three men in the room sprawled on the easy chairs.
- The easy chairs in the room had been claimed by sprawling bodies.
- Three men sprawled on easy chairs around the room.
Notice that in example 2, the to be form, had been, signals the passive voice, which drains energy from the verb. And the verb sprawl in (1) and (2) is showing up as a weaker participle— sprawled and sprawling–in other words it’s been demoted in status to an adjective.
Raise your verb consciousness by keeping lists of strong verbs. (See Muze Taps: The Writer’s Notebook) They needn’t be multi-syllabic SAT verbs with Latin roots; they need only suggest concrete action. Try a list of verbs associated with sports, from kick and wrestle, to bunt and parry. Or a list of verbs associated with eating and food preparation, from sip and mince to gorge and flay. How about verbs that capture varieties of locomotion—saunter, slide, stumble, and trudge? Slot them into your sentences and watch your writing snap, crackle, and pop.
*One reader of the last Muze Tap, Pete, has correctly pointed out that when enlisted to nail down vague verbs, prepositions “become” adverbs: as in put down, make over, play around.