I’m curious what our readers think about the infographic posted below from grammarcheck.net. Please comment below.
I tend to think there is a time and place for “boring” verbs, but the danger is letting your work feel or read “flat.”
I first wrote the below sentences and then arbitrarily replaced the “boring” verbs with ones from the list. Better? Worse?
Original: As a boy, I would play, jump, run, and yell so much that I would keep my mom from having a good night’s sleep.
Revised: As a boy, I would cavort, leap, scamper, and bellow so much that I would keep my mom from having a good night’s snooze.
I think I just committed the error of “overwriting.” This is when you are trying too hard to sound “literary” and miss the point.
Yesterday I found a thrilling verb
and it is yours for the taking.
I’m sure it will be glad to serve,
that word named Lacerating.
I do not think I am a fool
(though surely no Einstein),
but argue with a Dremel tool,
and it will beat you, every time.
My grip was just a bit too weak,
and it leapt happ’ly away
letting out a joyous shriek
as the bit began to play
Surgeon Of The Spinning Swords
on the hand with which I type these words.
Steve, I think it depends on your audience, right? The (other) brilliant Steven James (Story Trumps Structure) says if you use too many snazzy words, your readers will start looking for them and make a game out of it rather than focus on your story. So, if you’re PG Wodehouse, yes, use the vivid (aka kooky) words. If you’re Herman Melville, pump the brakes. And if you’re Hemingway, not at all.
And Andrew, you’re killin’ me!!!
Karen, I figure that some lives are inspirational, while mine is surely a cautionary tale.
Always keep in mind the tone/style and Person of your writing. Sometimes the boring verb will be the right choice because a person of that age or “station” won’t have that advanced vocabulary and/or the descriptive verbs won’t fit.
Thank you for asking.
I think they’re great verbs–at the same time, they don’t seem to match the vocabulary of the age the protagonist would have been at the time.
I understand he was looking back, with a different intellect, it just stood out for me. The better verbs, in this case, were something of a distraction for me.
Many of the “less boring” verbs we use have nuanced meanings which may not be appropriate for our story. They may add an emotional element or elicit a prejudicial response to the action. There is a reason little boys play instead of perform or compete. Even cavort adds an impish quality which may not have been present. I like the first version.
Interesting. My first reaaction to reading the example wasn’t the type of verbs. My first thought was “say it shorter”.
I definitely prefer your first version, for the same reason as Rev El. They describe a child’s activities and, for that reason, the simpler verbs seem more appropriate. Using one in a sentence might be okay, but more than that seems pretentious.
I, too, have clipped out such lists ut seldom find that I actually use them!
Steve, I strongly prefer your original verbs. They instantly transported me to your unruly boyhood—and made me smile.
I strongly disliked their version. They instantly made me wince.
Sometimes verbs need a little livening up. “She dashed through the airport” sounds better than “She walked quickly through the airport.” But I agree with the other commenters–it depends on the genre, setting, characters, etc.
I think some of the recommended verbs on the chart are a little too pretentious. I got dinged on a paid manuscript critique for using the word “midst.” I can only imagine what my critiquer would have said to “ululate” or “pule.”
I do prefer the first version. I like the chart you added.
A bigger problem is how the word “would” is used twice in the sentence. That’s a definite distracting bump. Other than that, it’s all about context and audience.
Steve, thanks for the list of “boring verbs'” and substitutes. In your original sentence the verbs were a conduit to why the mother could not sleep. In your revised sentence they were obstacles that deflected the reader in many directions; when you got to the end you were not sure where you were. The first sentence was united; the second was disjointed. By the way, was the boy engaged in these activities during the night?
I think your original version is much more powerful than the “literary” one.
Having said that, I keep an online thesaurus open while I’m writing. If I find I’m overusing a word, whether it’s a verb or another part of speech, I search for an alternative. But I look for a word that serves the story, not the other way around.
When I first started writing, I thought it would be impressive to use more flavorful verbs. Then I realized that I’m not writing to impress but to entertain. Keeping my ideal reader in mind I choose verbs that move the plot along without bogging down the narrative. Sometimes, I’ll choose “shrieked” over “yelled” because, in my mind, I hear them differently and want to convey that. I think an argument can be made for keeping it simple with boring verbs, but also allowing the page to explode at times with some of the alternatives.
Shorter and simpler is easily read and better comprehended especially in dialogue. A story should reflect the characters age, culture and situation. Making it “real” is a writer’s goal.
I often ululate, when I cannot conk out because my neighbor is squawking loudly. I scamper to the open window, which I secure, and then grab the phone with the intent of discoursing with said neighbor concerning her tendency to bellow.
Wonderful! Steve, if I ever write a novel, it will start it with this paragraph, and I’m sure that after reading it, you will positively gambol at the chance to represent such an “exciting” piece of writing.
The standard verbs suffice so the words aren’t intrusive but it’s fun for the reader to slide in a zinger, too.
Instead of a list of action words, ordinary or literary, I would prefer a short humorous description of what the boy was doing. He pulled the cats tail, bounced off the bed and then chucked his Nerf ball at his brother’s head.
Mary Kuhlmann Antholz
Instead of list, use thesaurus.
A thesaurus in the hands of a writer can be dangerous.
Terri Lynn Schump
I am reminded of Mark Twain’s quote about lightning and lightning bugs. There is a time when cavort is the perfect word to use. Your sentence, however, wasn’t it. 🙂
Glad you all are not my critique group. I’d be battered and bruised! LOL
I wasn’t even trying to write something well-crafted (thus the two uses of “would” in one sentence). I spent all of two minutes creating an example like a teacher would on the board to illustrate a point.
If I’d done it on the board the original sentence would be sketched and a strikethrough on each verb. Then, using the chart as a handout I’d ask the students to vote on a better verb. THEN we’d discover that the handout is interesting, but ultimately not very helpful.
However, as the teacher I would have succeeded in getting my writing students to look at their verbs. Thus is the point of this entire blog. Look at your verbs. Are they boring? Should they be in this paragraph? It’s okay if they are. But when the entire manuscript (non-fiction or fiction) is flat and uninteresting, it may be the verbs need some attention.
Sharon K Connell
There are so many things to consider when using a verb. Who is speaking? How forceful they want to sound. What is appropriate for the age of the character. The setting. And readability. My reaction to your first sentence was, nothing wrong with those words. My reaction to the second sentence after your revision was, You’ve got to be kidding. LOL Sometimes writer overdo the writing, as you’ve commented. And sometime, I believe they are showing off their vocabulary when it is not needed.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I think the key is moderation. Choosing one of the fun verbs from their list might liven up your prose, however, making a unique substitution for every one makes for an exhausting and clunky read.
There’s a time for everything, right? Are the words each serving their intended purpose (in whatever the piece of writing is) or are they showing off? I think that’s the question I’ll start asking myself. Thanks for helping me think more intentionally about verbs.
Your point is well taken. Just pay attention to your verbs and use ones that best serve your sentence, paragraph, and story.
Words are meant to convey ideas, emotions, and communicate intent. Word choice is important for effective communication. But words have always formed pictures in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I get full color animated films from just a few words. For example:
Instead of Cry
Cry your heart out paints a picture of significant heart ache, whereas Snivel your heart out paints a picture of a Steve Urkle type nerd with a perpetual box of tissues on hand.
Instead of Jump
Jumping off a cliff and Skipping off a cliff are two entirely different actions. And Leapfrogging off the cliff is just silly.
Of course now I have this short animated film of Steve Urkle leapfrogging over the guardrail and off the side of a mountain with an wide eyed grin on his face. (can you picture the wide eyed grin? Now I have a whole other weird picture in my head.)
Instead of Talk
A frank Talk may be uncomfortable but I don’t think a frank Shmooze is possible. I suppose you could Verbalize a frank discussion but a frank Prattle a frank Babble and a frank Yak would be way too much small talk for me.
Sometimes my brain goes off along unrelated paths and now I have an image of a Yak named Frank conversing with a flower.
Instead of Work
Most of the alternatives for work make work sound like something that must be endured.
I’ve heard of cracking the books but getting down to Crack just doesn’t make any sense at all.
I think that life is too short to spend in Drudgery which may be why I now have a cute little animated film of several toddlers in T-shirts and diapers playing with their Tinker Toils.
Instead of Play
I know my mind went along the wrong definition of Play but still it was a fun detour.
The Play’s the thing wherein we catch the conscious of the king.
The Caper’s the thing? The Cavort’s the thing?
West Side Story was a riveting Kibitz? Dabble?
OK if you insist on Playing a Game –
The Challenge of solitaire is to Divert your attention with your left hand while your right hand switches the cards so you can win.
Instead of Hit
It was a clear case of Hit and run. Slap and run? Jab and run?
(I just spent 30 minutes laughing at the Whack a mole climbing out of his hole and taking off after the Whacker with a long wooden paddle. Spank – Run – Spank – Run. Like I said sometimes my mind’s eye gives me full color animated films.)
My nephew once told me that I lead a boring life. This was news to me – I am hardly ever bored. In fact I am obviously easily entertained.
Instead of Cook
Here is a clear example of the un-interchangeability of certain words.
I would really like to see you Boil a cake or Bake water or Brew an egg or Poach a potion.
And although you can Boil, Bake, Brew and Poach while Cooking a meal you will rarely Boil, Bake, Brew or Poach a meal.
Instead of Give
And finally, I would have to be dead to bequeath you the shirt off of my back and since I’d rather you didn’t strip me in my coffin I’ll just Give you my shirt now.
Thank you for the thoughtful commentary. Great to see such wealth of info for everyone to enjoy.
I think there is certainly a place to use boring verbs. They are almost invisible and therefore do not slow the reader down as much. Also, nestling an interesting verb among boring ones in a paragraph is a great way to draw the reader’s attention to the sentence you want them to remember.
Thanks for sharing. I downloaded this for future reference when I get stumped!
Thanks for all the insight(wisdom?).
With English my second language I find it challenging to not only find the correct verb at times, but other words as well.
Bob’s comment therefore sends shivers down my spine.
Great post, Steve! I agree word choices (verb or not) come down to your audience and genre.
I’m a fantasy author, for the most part. And so often, fantasy lends itself to word choices I’d never use in real life or devotional writing. It really is fun to tiptoe through the thesaurus!
Then there’s making verbs out of nouns. That’s fun, too! I do that at the grocery store checkout when I don’t want something put in a bag (like a sack of potatoes). I tell them to “stickerize” it. Ha! And yeah, I get strange looks. But hey, I’m a children’s book author! hahaha!
Looks very interesting. How would you write if not writing a book?
Does it matter who your audience will be?
How would you write to politicians who may be attorneys?
How would you write to young people? etc.
Though I’m in favor of strong verbs, like a recipe, too much or too little of something spoils the outcome. The right words, verbs or otherwise, make all the difference in the end product.
However, one I struggle with is, to walk, especially in historical fiction. Can’t choose a synonym that’s too recent sounding. Doesn’t leave many to choose from. I’ve often had to rewrite scenes to find an alternative.