Do you ever wonder why a grammatically correct sentence you’ve written just lies there like a dead fish?
I sure have.
Your sentence might even be full of those adjectives and adverbs your teachers and loved ones so admired in your writing when you were a kid.
But still the sentence doesn’t work.
Something simple I learned from The Elements of Style years ago changed the way I write and added verve to my prose. The authors of that little bible of style said: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”
Even Mark Twain was quoted, regarding adjectives: “When in doubt, strike it out.”
That’s not to say there’s no place for adjectives. I used three in the title and first paragraph of this post alone.
The point is that good writing is more about well-chosen nouns and strong verbs than it is about adjectives and adverbs, regardless what you were told as a kid.
There’s no quicker win for you and your manuscript than ferreting out and eliminating flabby verbs and replacing them with vibrant ones.
How To Know Which Verbs Need Replacing
Your first hint is your own discomfort with a sentence. Odds are it features a snooze-inducing verb.
As you hone your ferocious self-editing skills, train yourself to exploit opportunities to replace a weak verb for a strong one.
At the end of this post I suggest a list of 249 vivid verbs you can experiment with to replace tired ones.
What constitutes a tired verb? Here’s what to look for:
3 Types of Verbs to Beware of in Your Prose
1. State-of-being verbs
These are passive as opposed to powerful:
Am I saying these should never appear in your writing? Of course not. You’ll find them in this piece. But when a sentence lies limp, you can bet it contains at least one of these. Determining when a state-of-being verb is the culprit creates a problem—and finding a better, more powerful verb to replace it—is what makes us writers. [Note how I replaced the state-of-being verbs in this paragraph.]
Resist the urge to consult a thesaurus for the most exotic verb you can find. I consult such references only for the normal word that carries power but refuses to come to mind.
I would suggest even that you consult my list of powerful verbs only after you have exhausted all efforts to come up with one on your own. You want Make your prose to be your own creation, not yours plus Roget or Webster or Jenkins. [See how easy they are to spot and fix?]
Impotent: The man was walking on the platform.
Powerful: The man strode along the platform.
Impotent: Jim is a lover of country living.
Powerful: Jim treasures country living.
Impotent: There are three things that make me feel the way I do…
Powerful: Three things convince me…
2. Verbs that rely on adverbs
Powerful verbs are strong enough to stand alone.
The fox ran quickly dashed through the forest.
She menacingly looked glared at her rival.
He secretly listened eavesdropped while they discussed their plans.
3. Verbs with -ing suffixes
Before: He was walking…
After: He walked…
Before: She was loving the idea of…
After: She loved the idea of…
Before: The family was starting to gather…
After: The family started to gather…
The Strong Verbs List