Strong verbs for powerful writing

Those of you who read our article about the middle of short stories and how important it is to keep reader engagement will remember that we touched on the significance of strong verbs. These can be replaced by writers who think it is more effective to use adverbs say, for example, ‘He laughed heartily’, when using one great verb to say ‘He guffawed’ would in fact be far more effective. Like everything in the world of writing, there is no hard-and-fast rule as to when to replace an adverb with a verb but we did think it was an area that was often overlooked and was worth revisiting.

I will firstly make a comparison between well-chosen verbs and adverbs, and then mention why I believe it is important to make the right choice when deciding on the verb to use.

Greater instinct / less formulaic

Often, adverbs follow a certain pattern that, when overused, appears formulaic to the reader and so detracts from the story. This is an understandable habitual trait that may well stem from our days at school. In my previous life as a high school English teacher, lessons would be devoted to the wonderful adverb, easily remembered by its ‘ly’ ending. The students let their imaginations flow and came up with an adverb for every verb they could imagine. This was an important and interesting learning experience at this point in student development, but it becomes a problem when it is so ingrained in your writing habit that, when reading your piece, the ‘ly’ adverb is so overused that it is all that we can see.

It makes the writer appear to have a wider vocabulary and creative instinct when they leave overuse of the ‘ly’ behind them. It is important to branch out into a greater wealth of verbs than the most basic to convey the same meaning in interesting and thoughtful ways.

An (over-the-top) example of this point is as follows:

  1. She walked angrily over to him, but he sat nonchalantly on his chair and drank noisily as though he didn’t even see her coming. Picking up a plate quietly, she held it over his head discreetly, ready to drop.
  2. She stormed over to him, but he lazed in his chair, slurping his drink as though he didn’t even see her coming. Swiping up a plate, she hovered it over his head, ready to drop.  

More concise and hard-hitting

At the very least, it is more concise to write one great verb rather than a mediocre verb followed by an adverb. See, it’s long winded even to describe this kind of writing! One excellent verb makes your writing more concise and hard hitting. It gets straight to the point and carries your reader along with you at a fast pace. The story is no longer a chore to read but something that we can really get our teeth into.

The example from Dan in his previous article and repeated above is a good one here. ‘Laughed heartily’ shows the laugh itself as being genuine and heartfelt, whereas ‘guffawed’ conveys the same meaning but contains a different layer – almost that the focus of amusement is something to be laughed AT rather than with. There are subtle, negative connotations here that ‘laughed heartily’ does not quite reach.  

Making a colourful choice of verb

Not only is the concise nature of a good verb so important, but the choice of this verb is pivotal.

In the example above, had he merely ‘laughed’ then the depth of emotion and feeling would not have been in evidence. ‘Guffawed’ was a great choice. Imagine the difference between the following:

  1. ‘She cried and hit the table.’
  2. ‘She howled and smashed the table.’

What real difference is contained in the verbs used? What different meaning is construed in each sentence? What different emotions and personal attributes are being conveyed?

Think about your verbs. Think about your intended meaning. Take time to convey this meaning and leave formulaic, thoughtless writing behind.

He Said / She Said

All that said, there is a place to keep things simple. Again, returning to our old example, the character here did ‘guffaw’. That clearly expresses his reaction in a given situation. However, this description would not be as effective if, in every page, he reacted in some extreme and colourful manner. Then, the reasons for his slightly disparaging and raucous action would be lost.

Pick up your favourite book now and look at the protagonist’s speech. A lot of times, it will be followed by ‘he said’, ‘she said’ or ‘they said’ – not ‘he laughed’, ‘she gasped’ or ‘they shouted’. Use strong verbs but be strategic. Ensure their positioning is relevant on the page to bring out character traits at relevant moments.

So, there is still a place for adverbs, even those ending in ‘ly’, and also for common-place verbs. We are not trying to deprive your writing of them completely. What we are trying to focus on here is a great breadth of writing that is often overlooked. Giving strong verbs careful consideration will mean that your writing will be lifted, and your reader will be lifted along with it.