Use Your Verbs Wisely

We've all heard to avoid passive writing. To pick strong verbs. Vibrant verbs.

After a while, active writing becomes easier. Because of this, I sometimes grow lazier. I forget to choose my verbs wisely. Sometimes I forget they're good for more than just strong writing. They're needed to set the mood of a scene. The right verb can pull the emotion off a page and fling it into the reader's heart.

I'm reading fellow blogger Patti Lacy's An Irishwoman's Tale right now. Her writing inspired this post. Especially one particular sentence.

Pg 24 Something like a smile flirted with her lips.


What an awesome image! I probably would've wrote edged or turned up, but do you see how the word flirted creates an immediate feeling? It more than shows.

It evokes.

Do you fall into the trap of using the same verbs over and over? Do you ever forget to try your best because something is easy for you? Which authors do you feel use language in fresh and exciting ways?


Robyn Campbell said…
Great post Jessica. I am going to get my bookstore to order Patti's book. She is a super pal and her writing is BRILLIANT!

Flirted is the PERFECT way to show me in my head what is going on. And isn't it hard to pick THAT special verb? It takes me some time to decide on just the right one.

*note to self, call bookstore today* :-)
Sarah Forgrave said…
I applied this concept to my last manuscript during the editing phase, but my crit partners said it made it sound forced. So while I try to find vibrant verbs, I'm trying to tone it down so it doesn't distract the reader too much. LOL
Thanks for this reminder. Yesterday I was doing revisions/edits and noticed that I choose the same verbs over and over...ugh! So off I go to verb rewrite!!
Jody Hedlund said…
Love that quote from Patti's book! You're so right. It's easy to slip into sloppy. But if we're consciously trying to take our writing to the next level, then perhaps we need to slow down just a bit and be more intentional with what verbs were choosing! Thanks for that reminder!
I've noticed this a lot in The Book Thief. As I'm reading it I smile at intriguing ways the author describes things.

I wake up excited thinking about how to do this.

Great post.
~ Wendy
Tamika: said…
That is a beautiful image! Good job Patti!

Strong verbs can do a lot to dress up our writing- and I love dressing up!
LOL Tamika, I like dressing up too! I thought it was a beautiful image too. Flirting is such a give and take, a back and forth, and that's exactly what I pictured the heroine's lips doing.

Wendy, I really, really want to read that book!

Hey Jody, that's what I'm trying to do. It's so easy to be armed with an arsenal of verbs and forget to consider all the other ones.

LOL Donna! I do the same thing. :-)

Sarah, that's tough, right? Maybe you do need to tone down the verbs, or maybe the crit partners are used to a more passive voice so it didn't sound like you to them. Either way, I hope you find the right balance. I completely agree that our verbs should add to the writing, not detract from it.

Hi Robyn, it IS hard to find that perfect verb. I'm not sure I could've come up with flirt, but what a beautiful way to show the smile! I'm looking forward to reading more of Patti's work. :-)
Linda Kage said…
This is stuff I struggle with constatntly. But it's just so easy to slip in "was" everywhere. It takes a conscious effort to use those fancy action verbs, and still...I doubt I'd ever have thought of something as ingenious as "flirted" for a smile.

I can't come up with an author off the top of my head that uses awesome verbs, but I'm getting a few good names off your other comments. Thanks, guys.
Tana said…
This is my battle ground. I really need to take more time in evoking feeling rather than telling feeling. it's not an easy thing to do. I find myself constantly making sophmoric blunders. That's what editings for, right?
Anonymous said…
Great example! I want to smile like that.... :O)
Stephanie Faris said…
I always love that word! I never find a place for that in my writing, though. I need to squeeze it in. I usually say her lips twitched slightly, as though she were fighting a smile.
Karen Lange said…
I do get in a rut sometimes and it's things like this that help me out of it!
Thanks and blessings,
Karen :)
Stephanie, I like twitch. I can see that one, definitely.

Hey Diane, me too. LOL Flirting is always fun, I've heard.

Linda, it is easy to slip into was. I think using verbs comes more naturally to me now, but that doesn't mean I don't still find stuff to change.

LOL T. Anne. Exactly. Thank goodness for editing! Now if I could only convince the editor on my shoulder to take some time off during rough draft stage...
Gotta love those ruts, right Karen? LOL I hope you find a nice, mountainous trail in your writing today. :-)
Erica Vetsch said…
I love unusual and descriptive verbs!

Great example!
Patti said…
Great verb, I think it comes to thinking outside the box.
Me too, Erica!

Patti, I agree. Very creative because the verb is not an actual action of the lips, and yet, it gives us an action image. Very cool!
For the years I've been critiquing with Patti you'd think I would know how to use strong verbs too, but no, of course not. I have a really thick head. yes, patti writes off the page into a scene.
Patti Lacy said…
Oh, my. I came for my daily dose of Jessica's wonderful medicine and praise God that she didn't find one of those "other" sentences.

Those in-house editors are great for slashing out what they feel are forced words.

Sigh. But the words that cleave to one reader's mouth and soul and heart are spit out by the next.

And so on and scooby dooby do. Holy Spirit, help me get it right...for You!!!

Deb Shucka said…
Thanks for the reminder to stay aware. I do tend to use the same words - not just verbs - over and over, and often have to edit carefully to weed the repeats out.
Elana Johnson said…
Ah, yes. The fresh verb. I'm trying, I really am. But I'm writing a novel with fire right now, and I swear there aren't that many great fiery verbs! I keep using raged and danced and it's driving me nuts!
It is easy to become repetative, especially when we are in the middle of trying to get the first draft out of our heads and onto the page. It's great to remember that verbs can be as powerful in describing something as a plain adjective.

And I'm glad you liked my book cover! I worked really hard with my designer to create one that touched on specific elements from the book. I'm afraid I rejected her first three designs. I felt so bad. :P
ali cross said…
I definitely have my pet phrases or word. Each revision has be nuking more of them and being more careful in my word choice. But stuff still escapes my attention.

I loved that FLIRTED. That was awesome.

Thanks for this!
And to evoke is important! It's a great example. Thanks, Jessica! And Patti. ;)
Sometimes I think the next book I should read is the dictionary.

I tend to think in concrete terms. There's no way I would have used the word, "flirted," there. Amazing word choice.

Susan :)
I try to find something beautiful and strong. Sometimes it's hard and sometimes I don't notice and need someone else to tell me I need to do better.
Cindy R. Wilson said…
Great example! I definitely get lazy in what verbs I use. It's easier not to use passive verbs but I'm trying to focus more in giving that immediate feeling, like you said.
anita said…
Jessica and Patti: great writing, BOTH of you! :-)

One of my fave authors for using imagery is Alice Hoffman. Here's an example: Wishes are brutal unforgiving things, they burn your tongue the moment they're spoken and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you.

This is from her book: The Ice Queen, taken from the first paragraph of chapter one. She STARTS the book this way! Wow!

Talk about evoking!

Anyway, thanks for the inspiring post, Jessie.
Belle said…
Strong verbs and strong imagery are both things I end up writing in during edits - my style tends to be very basic and bare bones in my first drafts, when all I seem to want to do is get the story down!
Krista Phillips said…
I totally need to do better with this!!! My problem is that I'm a logical person... so my writing tends to be more logical/specific than laced with verbs that invoke imagination.

I'd say.. "She smiled."


Flirted is SO SO much better!
Eileen, I bet your verbs are just fine. :-) We all have different strengths, anyway.

Hi Patti, I warned you Monday in the comments that I'd be posting about you! LOL I'm enjoying the story. Well-done! :-) (and no, no "other" sentences to be found, heehee!)
Me too, Deb. Me too.

LOL Elana. You'll find something. How about spit? Licked? :-)

Emily, I love what you said about verbs being as descriptive as an adjective. Very true!
Ali, stuff always escapes our attention, right? LOL Thank goodness for crit buddies. :-)

You're welcome Janna. :-)

Oh Susan, you cracked me up when you said that about the dictionary!!! Also, concreteness. Yes. That's me too. Maybe why her usage of flirted is so brilliant, because it's abstract and refers to something we feel rather something that is visual.
Kristen, beautiful and strong is such a lovely way to put it.

Cindy, I hope we both get it down. I'm much more concrete so this is a great lesson for me. :-)

Anita, gosh, I've only read two of Hoffman's books, and it was when I was in high school, but even then I noticed and loved her writing. I need to pick one up again. Thanks for sharing that. Beautiful!
Belle, thank goodness for edits! LOL It's good that you can see where the story is bare and dress it up some.

LOL Krista! :-) You know though, Lacy wrote plenty of she smiled. That's okay to do. But sometimes you just have to switch it up, right? Hehee. I bet you have some great sentences in your manuscripts. :-)
Katie Ganshert said…
What a great example!! I LOVE that! For sure, when I write the rough draft, I don't htink about verbs too much. I just get the words out. It's during revisions where I really try to evoke the right emotion. Thanks for the reminder, JEssica!
Oooh, great example, but what I really love is your use of the word "evokes" to describe how well that verb worked in that sentence!
Angie Muresan said…
Flirted is such a delicious sounding verb! I know what you mean. I need to do that too. Pick stronger verbs!
Debra E. Marvin said…
I have to put something aside and go back to it in a cold blooded way. I like to circle all my passives and weak verbs - anything that jumps out to me as BORING. It's not easy to see.
You have to let the mean editor who's in a bad mood (sitting on your shoulder) come out with her red pen. She's especially ruthless at times and that's a good thing!

But when the right word comes along --that's the joy of writing for me.

A fun post, Jessica!
Katie, alot of writers do it that way, I think. It definitely works.

Hey Kate, I love the word evoke.

LOL Angie. Delicious is right!

Debra, circling them is a great idea! The right word, the right scene, it all is wonderful. :-)
Patti is masteful at making sentences sing. I love her for how my writing has blossomed unter her tutelage.

One of my favorites is to use a noun and turn it into a verb: Jessica "cannoned" into Paul; I "tornadoed" through the house, cleaning and scrubbing.

Excellent post!
Kara said…
You are so right. When I'm in a hurry I let some of the crativity sleep, like good verbs. But it can make all the difference!
Dara said…
I definitely use the same verbs way too much. I think during NaNo, when all I'm concerned about is getting words on the page, I fall into the trap of repetitive verb usage. Then it's hard for me to break it later on. Writing in passive voice is one of my BIGGEST hurdles I have to overcome in writing.
Warren Baldwin said…
Good post. I especially like ones like this that have multi-genre application. I do use the same verbs repeatedly and have to read and reread to think of another one. Authors who use language in fresh ways for me are Will Willimon and Fred Craddock. Good post.
I like to do that too! The only annoying thing is that Word sometimes puts the squigglies under my new verb. *grin*

Kara, I think it makes a difference too.

Dara, if that's the biggest hurdle, then don't worry! It's so much easier to change passive to active, than to try to make a boring character interesting, or worse, a boring plot! :-) You'll be fine. That's what editing and crit partners are for!

Hey Warren,
Thanks for the examples! I've never heard of those authors. Yeah, I'd imagine with non-fiction verbiage would be just as important. Speaking of which, I need to start reading some of your devotions! I have the book, just have to pull it out. :-)

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