Ran. Said. Threw. Sat.
Bland verbs make for mundane stories. Some might be permissible or even necessary. But too many boring verbs pull the life out of even the liveliest writing.
So what are some ways to use more vivid verbs? Let’s discuss.
First, What Do We Mean by “Vivid”?
I think the New Oxford Dictionary definition sums it up nicely: “producing powerful feelings or strong, clear images in the mind.”
The key word is “clear.” We want to strive for clarity with our verbs.
Take the verb “fall” as an example. There’s nothing wrong with the word; most people know what it means. However, it could certainly be more clear. A fall just means downward motion. It suggests nothing about intention or distance.
Say we swap fall with a verb like “tumble.” That’s more vivid because it implies a clumsy roll, or perhaps even an accidental fall. Or how about one of my favorite words: “plummet.” Now that makes me think of someone falling from a huge distance, likely to their doom. Or what about “descend”? That feels much more gradual and intentional to me, like an airplane landing.
See how much more meaning we can get from verbs? That’s what we mean by “vivid.” Now for the methods.
Method 1: Allow Bland Verbs in Your First Draft
This might seem counterintuitive, but you need not agonize over your verb choices in first drafts.
Writers often need to get something down, just so they have the bones of their story. But once you’ve got those bones, add some flesh. I’ll give you an example from my current project:
Rismo exhaled. Climbing the treacherous rock face of the tallest mountain in the mortal world was hard enough. Doing it while being asked questions? That was nigh on impossible.
This is fine for a first draft, but it could be better. To help us focus, we might extract our first draft verbs, then brainstorm more vivid alternatives.
Now let’s consider verbs that are more descriptive. What additional meaning can we pack into each word?
Exhale: Everyone exhales all day (it’s kind of an essential part of breathing). But a sigh – now that’s reserved for someone who’s overwhelmed, like Rismo is in this scene.
Climb: You don’t just climb a tall peak – you scale it. That’s a verb that better matches our description of the mountain.
Ask: Asking questions implies casual politeness. Instead, let’s use the verb grill. Now that suggests a rapid-fire series of questions, one that would make anybody sigh.
Let’s look at our new paragraph with those shiny new verbs.
Rismo sighed. Scaling the treacherous rock face of the tallest mountain in the mortal world was hard enough. Doing it while being grilled with questions? That was nigh on impossible.
Method 2: “Never Use Two Words When One Will Do”
The above quote is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson (of Hamilton fame, of course), though I also like Strunk and White’s famous advice from The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.”
This advice is especially useful for verbs, because oftentimes we use two words when we could use one. Take this sentence as an example:
- The dog jumped over the obstacle.
Jumped is our verb and over is our preposition. Technically speaking, this sentence functions correctly and gives us the right information. However, we’re using two words where one will do. Jump is not the strongest verb, and over is a needless word. Instead, let’s try this:
- The dog hurdled the obstacle.
Not only have we used one word instead of two, we’ve also used a more vivid verb than we had before. Jump is generic, while hurdle implies athleticism.
Method 3: Visualize Your Work
This method might not work for everyone, but I find it interesting. Simply read a scene you’re working on aloud, then close your eyes and visualize it.
Having a hard time seeing it? That might be because your verbs aren’t specific enough. For example, imagine this line:
- She threw the ball.
When I read and visualize that line, I see a simple throw, but nothing particularly distinct. That’s a tell-tale sign of a verb in need of vivifying. How about this?
- She hurled the ball.
Now I imagine her getting her full weight behind the ball and having it rocket into the distance. With such a clear image, that must be a better verb!
Method 4: Highlight Your Verbs
For many of us, we don’t categorize words into types (like verbs) as we read them. If your writing feels a little flat, you may not realize that verbs are the culprit if you’re just reading your work back to yourself.
Another way to visualize your verbs is by highlighting them with the ProWritingAid Thesaurus Report. The report highlights all of the verbs in your writing so you can see where they could use some work.
If you decide you need to swap out some of your verbs, you can find contextually relevant synonyms right within the report. Using ProWritingAid’s Thesaurus Report lets you see where all of the verbs are so that you can move through your verb edits with ease.
Vivid verbs make for great writing. Use these four methods to add them to your work!