Two steps to stronger verbs
Strong verbs equal strong writing. Normally, the first words we get down on paper tend to be thoughts, images, and ideas off the top of our head. Revision is the place where we go deeper and discover more original ideas, images, and metaphors, along with stronger verbs and nouns.
The good news is in two easy steps you can begin to train your brain to produce stronger verbs even in first drafts.
Step One: First, you have to know where you’re at.
Do a short timed write or use a piece of first draft writing. One page is good. You don’t want polished or revised work for this exercise—only first draft material! Next, underline or highlight each verb on the page.
Step Two: Add ‘em up! Count your verbs. How many are on the page?
Then, on a blank piece of paper draw three columns with these headers: Weak Verbs, Medium Verbs, Strong Verbs. Look at each verb you’ve highlighted and put a hash mark or a “1” in the column that verb belongs to.
Weak verbs are passive linking verbs: is, was, are, have been, will be, or looked, as in “the girl looked happy.”
Medium verbs are thinking verbs like: think, wonder, remember, or more common verbs like: talk, walk, speak, hear, sit, etc.
Strong verbs convey an intensity of action: stumbled or shuffled instead of walked; whistled or whispered instead of talked.
Once you’ve assigned each word to a column, count how many verbs you have per column and turn it into a fraction, i.e. if you have 20 verbs total and 10 weak verbs, 6 medium verbs, and 4 strong verbs, then it would look like this: 10/20, 6/20, and 4/20. What is your ratio of strong verbs? What is your ratio of weak verbs? In this example we have 50% weak verbs. Not too bad. But not great.
Seeing my verb stats in black and white for the first time was like shining a flashlight on those weak verbs trembling in the dark corners of my first-thought ideas. Illuminating these verbs made me conscious of unconscious verb patterns. Almost immediately, stronger verbs began surfacing in my first drafts.
Try the exercise. You may take your first drafts to the next level or, at least, become conscious of your verb patterns. As artists that’s what we’re striving for—to become aware of the choices we make in our art and in our lives.
(I learned this exercise from Jack Remick and Robert Ray—two incredible Seattle-based writers and teachers who I first met at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. To learn more about their work visit www.weekendnovelist.com).