11.08.2018

Bearing Down on Verbs

Most writers know that they need to use active rather than passive sentence structure. “I aced the exam” is more forceful than “The exam was aced by me.” What I often find, however, is that the choice of active verb can also be less forceful because of its broad nature.

Walk, fall, say are but a few examples of verbs that encompass a variety of more precise verbs. One can walk, but also amble, stroll, meander, trudge, or plod. Each of these achieves a finer level of definition. They also bring a reader a little further inside your fictional world because the activity is more specialized, and thus evocative. “Larry crumbled” creates a different sensation from “Larry toppled.”

Another signal advantage of more precision is that you avoid repetition. The human beast moves in only so many ways, and usage of the same word over and over can lead to reader fatigue. A thesaurus is at any writer’s fingertips, and I avail myself of it continually as I’m editing. Yes, I do know many standard synonyms, but even those can become tired. Plus, I often find a terrific word—fairly standard, not exotic—that was just outside my mind’s grasp. In the example of fall above, I wouldn’t immediately think of “keel over.” By using more precise verbs, you are also keeping your language fresh for the reader.

Specialized verbs can, however, seem precious. If Georgia constantly “declaims,” the reader may wish she’d avoid speaking altogether. People just don’t declaim much in real life. Using three-dollar words all the time can become ridiculous, a parody of what you’re trying to achieve. So you do have to make a decision about how unusual a verb is. In any given list of a dozen synonyms for a verb, I will identify half of them as words in common usage, a few more on the fringe, and the rest exotic.

While you can try to employ better verbs at the very conception, you should be aware that such precision can stymie an author’s creative flow. You should get out whatever you’re thinking, even if the verb is common. For instance, if the original idea for a sentence stems from a desire to describe gingerbread trim on a Victorian porch, by all means put that down on the page. You will be going back to edit yourself anyway, so make more deliberate verb choices then.

Exercise: Run a global search for a verb with a broad meaning. Find out, first, how many times you’ve used it. Then draw up a list of possible synonyms, maybe a dozen or more. Go back to the broad verb you’ve highlighted and substitute from your list as you go through the manuscript. Try to determine how exotic you can go, given the context. By the time you’re done, you may have swapped out that broad verb 30 times.

 “To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.”
―Aristotle

Copyright @ John Paine, 2018


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