Learning to use strong language is crucial to your success as a writer, and strong verbs are a great way to improve your writing by changing just one simple word.
But writing verbs correctly is an important skill that is rarely taught these days in writing classes.
In fact, there’s a good chance that almost everything you’ve been taught about writing verbs and using strong verbs was probably wrong.
Why Verbs Matter
Verbs are action words.
Stand. Sit. Run. Walk. Stop. Read.
These are all nice little “weak” verbs. They do their job well, but they’re not fancy or special. They lack pizazz. They lack punch.
Without a verb, nothing happens. Stories are about action, and great ideas only become meaningful when applied to the world through action.
Verbs are the fuel of writing fire, so any great writer has to be a great verb writer.
Without a verb, you don’t have a meaningful sentence. Sure, you can write choppy sentence fragments without any verbs, but that’s (almost always) just plain bad writing.
Every verb needs a sentence because verbs convey action. And if nothing’s happening, why bother writing about it?
Strong Verbs vs. Weak Verbs
So what’s a strong verb?
A strong verb is a verb that conveys more information than a simple action—strong verbs can convey emotion, speed, intention, direction, or significance.
For example, walk is a weak verb. It simply conveys the idea that someone is moving their feet to take them from one place to another. It’s not a bad verb, but it is a weak verb because it doesn’t convey any other information other than what specific action is taking place.
Let’s use strong verbs and weak verbs in a sentence so you can see the difference in action.
Strong Verb Examples
Consider these sentences to see the emotional and visceral impact strong verbs can make on your writing:
Harry walked to the car and drove away.
Harry sprinted to the car and sped off.
Harry stomped to the car and roared away.
Harry sauntered to the car and puttered away.
The first sentence “Harry walked to the car and drove away” is a fine sentence. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it also doesn’t convey any emotion, meaning, or frame of reference with which to interpret Harry’s actions. So if Harry’s angry because he just had an argument with his girlfriend and he’s leaving her house, you should write something like “Harry stomped to the car and roared away” because it’s a much more powerful sentence thanks to the two strong verbs “roared away” and “stomped.”
When to Use Strong Verbs
Strong verbs are powerful and can greatly improve your writing, but there’s a danger to overusing strong verbs. Many new writers try to convey too much emotion, meaning, and significance throughout their work, which can lead to “overwriting.” Overwriting is when you use so many strong verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and fancy language that your writing itself becomes distracting.
Here’s an example of overusing strong verbs, adverbs, and adjectives:
Jack slid the chair quickly out from under his refurbished oaken desk and plopped his butt on the cheap seat of his well-worn office chair. He eagerly smashed the glistening keys of his sleek, modern keyboard as he furiously typed his glorious new manuscript. He unceasingly rehashed the same mantra over and over and over again in his mind. I will establish myself as the most magnificent novelist the world has ever seen or ever will!
Although this paragraph has some good usage of strong verbs, it’s a bit too much, especially when you consider all the extra adverbs and adjectives that make it over the top. Instead, you could rewrite the paragraph to be much simpler and ultimately more powerful with careful usage of strong verbs, adverbs, and adjectives like so:
Jack slid the chair out from under his oak desk and sat down. He smashed the keys of his modern keyboard as he furiously typed his new manuscript. He kept repeating the same mantra over and over again in his mind. I will become the best novelist the world has ever seen or ever will!
The changes are subtle, but by limiting the use of strong verbs, adverbs, and adjectives, each one stands out much better on their own. Reading one paragraph that’s overloaded with strong verbs may not be a big deal, but reading page after page in that style of writing will quickly overwhelm and distract even the most eager reader.
Remember to use strong verbs often, but learn to use them wisely. And that means you need to know when not to use them.
How to Use Your Verbs Correctly
In addition to making sure you don’t overuse strong verbs, make sure you understand how to use your verbs correctly. Because strong verbs often convey much more information than weak verbs, they’re actually much more difficult to use properly.
When you simply pick a verb from a list of strong verbs and throw it into a sentence, there’s a good chance you could actually end up making your sentence worse or changing the entire meaning of the sentence.
Using strong verbs incorrectly is a sure sign of weak writing, and it won’t get you far if you want to become a successful writer or author. So make sure you look up the definition of any verb that you’re not very familiar with, especially if that verb is a strong verb.
Here are some examples of misused verbs:
The joke, although inappropriate, was so funny he couldn’t help but screech.
The above sentence is incorrect because screech is not typically used as a synonym for laughing. Screech is an antagonistic or derogatory word: a laugh can be described as “screeching,” maybe, but the word itself is never used in place of the word “laugh.” A better way to write this sentence would be:
The joke, although inappropriate, was so funny he couldn’t help but hoot.
Could you replace hoot with giggle or chuckle? Sure, you could—if those words convey what you mean. That’s why it’s so important to always understand each of the multiple definitions of every verb you use, especially when using strong verbs.
List of Strong Verbs
You can find lists of strong verbs online, but honestly I don’t recommend using a list in most cases.
Expanding your vocabulary, learning new words, and stretching yourself as a writer are great ways to grow and improve your writing skills. However, there are better ways to expand your vocabulary and write better sentences than simply taking a strong verb and plopping it into your novel.
One of the best things you can do to improve your writing is to write in simple, concrete language, because then your readers will understand exactly what you mean. So do yourself a favor and avoid overwriting.
Use strong verbs that you know and understand when you need to convey some extra emotion or meaning in your writing. The rest of the time, settle for using a weak verb, because often the simplest words will create the best result—a happy reader who understands every point you make from page one all the way until the end.
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