The Art of the Verb Choice

Among the struggles that authors have during the revision process, the most taxing is finding the right word in a specific sentence. The degree of difficulty an author experiences depends on the degree of perfection she demands from herself. Although I could write dozens of posts on this topic, I’ll start with a basic fix.

It concerns common verbs such as “move.” You want to describe a character moving through space. In that case, “move” is an umbrella term that comprises many more specific verbs. A profusion comes to mind: walk, advance, proceed, march, etc. How do you determine which one fits? 

The first consideration is frequency of usage. How many times have you used “walk,” for instance? Chances are, you have used it more than any other verb of moving. You don’t want to pile on, because those words become stale. That means your prose as a whole is more stale. 

You then advance to: shade of meaning. How is the character moving? A person who marches connotes perhaps a strict, upright individual. Yet it can also point out that the person is angry. Does that fit the context? Maybe you want to pick “advance,” because that can be made to seem threatening. Or, “proceed” is more utilitarian, performing a piece of business. When you stop to think about what you really mean, a more specific verb adds texture. A character would “circulate” at an art opening, for example.

If you try out a heap of words and you’re still dissatisfied, you may need to go beyond the concept of moving altogether. What is being accomplished by the act of moving, anyway? If he is circulating, that adds to a reader’s knowledge. If he feels he’s being watched as he walks down an alley, the act of movement could be crucial. Yet so many times the sentence is merely lazy thinking. You move the character from Point A to Z because you’re trying to picture the scene in your mind. Once you’ve written the scene, though, don’t you know what is happening?

The movement might be transformed into an act of desire. “She was so done with this place” could be followed by a paragraph starting with her pressing the ignition button in her car. Linked to the last thought, she could have another: “She felt like she could fly away forever.” You’re using paragraph structure to omit the need for transport.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for verbs. When you see one of the omnibus variety, such as “see,” stop to think through the options you have. If only a few come to mind, check a thesaurus. If nothing feels right still, the problem is the act of seeing. Chuck it altogether and convey the act a different way.

“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”
—Mary Oliver

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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