Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Do Your Verbs Need a Workout?

by Rachael Phillips

As a writer, I sometimes receive compliments about my books. A reader may appreciate my characters or my humor. Once I received kudos about food in my stories (“When I read your books, I know somebody will eat something scrumptious. I’ll devour a blow-by-blow description without swallowing a single calorie!”)    

But no one has ever said, “Rachael, I just can’t get enough of your verbs!”

Yet try writing a story without them. In romances, heroines and heroes would not flirt, flounce, fight or kiss. In mysteries, nobody would deduce, shiver, quiver or solve. Or die. Who reads mysteries in which everyone stays alive? Verbs keep the story interesting.

Given their importance, perhaps they should receive more attention. Too often, my verbs degenerate into couch potatoes, content to be, not do. “I AM” never denotes lethargy when the expression refers to God Almighty, the source of all creativity and energy. But too many forms of “be” (am, are, is, was, were, been) stagnate my scenes.

Superfluous “ing” verbs also drain a scene of vitality. They often clump together, clogging my manuscript, but a quick search helps me identify and smooth them, restoring movement to the story. Do you use “going to” in your writing, as in, “She is going to study platypuses in Australia”? Colloquial phrases such as this work in dialogue, but in narrative, the scholar and maybe even the platypuses (if they’re English majors) will fare better if she “plans to study” or “aspires to study.”

Bottom line, present or past tenses project much stronger action than “ing” verbs, so use the former whenever possible.

Verbs in active voice (“The octogenarian drives a purple convertible”) also trump verbs in passive voice (“A purple convertible is driven by the octogenarian”).

Lastly, experiment with vivid verbs. Overuse produces a big-plaid-with-floral-print effect (“She detonated the room with her presence and disseminated hellos, guzzling drinks and demolishing hors d’oeuvres”). But a well-placed, unique action can polish a paragraph to a spit-shine. 

So drag those verbs off the sofa and prod them into action. If we exercise to stay in shape, why shouldn’t they? 


  1. Rachel, I do use "ing" verbs now and then, as in "Leaving the room, Character did something." But they do have their place if not overused. Image starting every sentence with noun, verb, object. At least "ing" verbs provide some variety.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kathryn! "Ing" verbs do provide variety. I agree that "overuse" is the key word here. I include "ing" verbs in my writing, as well as forms of "be" and verbs in passive voice, treating them like a sprinkling of croutons and cheese on soup or a dollop of whipped cream on pie. They add flavor and interest, but should not comprise the main content.

    Now, I'm hungry. ...

  3. Ooh, I like that 'detonated the room with her presence' line of yours! This makes me want to scour my WIP for active verbs.
    Raquel Byrnes

    1. Glad that expression resonated with you, Raquel! I've known people like that, haven't you?

      I liked your use of the word "scour," too. Happy verb-hunting!