Thursday, December 20, 2012

Powerful Verbs Bring Boldness and Vigor to Our Writing

This post was first published here on August 4, 2009.


Effective use of verbs seems to be a little understood concept by many writers, and most of us could profit from a brief (not to be confused with short) review of three verb forms.

“Active” verbs denote action by the subject of the sentence. Writers, however, often miss the obvious here, a.k.a. ACTION. This oversight results in potentially powerful sentences that, instead, strike the reader as blah. Let’s consider some examples of strong verbs along with definitive adjectives and enhanced structures that turn a boring, almost empty canvas into a detailed word picture.

Boring and uninspired: Mary sat down in the chair. Disappointed and exhausted, she fell asleep.

Enhancement 1: Mary sank into the chair. Her descending eyelids encased her tears even before her head found a resting place against its plush back.

Enhancement 2: Mary dropped into the chair. Her red-rimmed eyes drifted closed the moment her head burrowed into the corner of its winged back.

Enhancement 3: Mary slumped against the back of the chair and allowed the corner of its winged back to cradle her throbbing head. Like shutters latched against the fury of a gale, her eyelids closed out the tempest that had devastated her day.

Enhancement 4: Collapsing into the depths of the overstuffed chair, Mary pulled a blanket of sleep over her to shut out the cold truth that had catapulted her warm and loving heart into a frigid wasteland.

Now let's look at “passive” verbs, which pass the action onto the subject. As a rule, these don’t pack the punch of active verbs, but they do serve a valid purpose when not overused. In addition to showing the receipt of action by the subject, passive verbs can cloak the identity of the actor when that information is inappropriate or insignificant or be used when the actor is unknown or obvious.

Subject acted upon: The frisbee was thrown by John. It was caught by Spot, and then it was stolen by Rover. The winning manuscript was submitted by a fellow CIPA member.

Unknown or unnamed actors: Ugly graffiti was written across the freshly painted walls of the new library. Every book on the shelves had been tossed to the floor.

Obvious actor(s): The leading man was greeted with a standing ovation.

Actor insignificant: Medicines should be stored in a safe place.

“Linking” verbs link or connect the subject and the predicate of a sentence and can sometimes be replaced with an equal sign. Most often forms of “to be,” they may also include verbs such as appear, seem, smell, look, taste, feel, and a few others. These are not strong verbs, but they do have an occasional good use. Check out the following examples:

1. Ms. Marple is the teacher. (Ms. Marple = the teacher.)
2. The apple pie tastes (to be) delicious.
3. The flower garden smells (to be) like spring.
4. The candid discussion was both interesting and informative. (Links subject “discussion” with predicate adjectives “interesting” and “informative.”
5. Our next leader may be Sam. (Links subject “leader” with predicate noun “Sam.”
6. I feel sad about his loss. (I am [form of to be] sad about his loss.)

Powerful verbs convey boldness and vigor. They give our characters permission to ACT. Less punchy ones allow the reader a moment to take a breath and regroup before the next compelling scene. These indispensable tools add vital color to our author’s palette and bring depth and texture to our word pictures. Use them with knowledge of their strength and understanding of their impact to take your writing to the next level.


Retiring editor Linda Lane is opening a cozy, online bookstore that welcomes writers and readers from all over the world. Currently under construction, it is accessible and should be completed by the end of January 2013. Visit her at Or check out her professional editing team at for top-notch editors to help you realize your dream of writing a great book.

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  1. Great examples of turning dull prose into a happening that moves a story forward.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Linda, thanks for this post. I have a tendency to write in passive voice. This was very helpful.

  3. This is an excellent post for beginning writers, and quite a few not-so-beginning writers as well. It's so easy to slip back into our bad habits (especially passive voice)

  4. Good reminder of some of the basics we learned in school and then forgotten. I know I have had to relearn a lot of this as I wrote more and more fiction.

  5. Wonderful examples I will not soon forget. Thank you!

  6. Thanks so much for the reminders! I'm currently editing my novel (4th or 5th draft) and I'm on the lookout for weak verbs and how to improve them! Right blog post at the right time!!!!

  7. Great post. Doesn't matter whether you're a new writer or an old hat, those passive verbs slip into your work.
    Straight From Hel

  8. Entertaining post - conjures up images of my beloved high school English teachers, Mrs. Hadley and Miss Fuller.

    Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso

  9. My first drafts are often riddled with passive voice. Thanks for giving me another way to think about verbs and their usage.

  10. I will be honest: it is good to be reminded to use powerful action words.

    But at the same time, if I were to actually pick up some printed work, and read any of those first 4 "enhancements" you list, I would immediately discard it, with disdain, and probably not bother to glance at that publication again.

    Powerful words are important. But ridiculous prose is ridiculous prose, no matter how much action it contains.

  11. I enjoyed this. Thank you. Some very helpful illustrations.

  12. Thanks for this great post. My writing critique buddies have drawn my attention to my stock of over-used words and I have been wondering how to correct this issue. Your post helps!

  13. Edith, sometimes it helps to think of your story as a canvas and your words as colors in a vast array of intensities and hues. The variety of those colors comes from your skilled use of your palette and brush — words that paint vivid pictures in the minds of your readers.

    How would you describe a favorite scene, photograph, or painting? Choosing words outside your comfort zone, write a paragraph that will tell your reader how the scene affects you and why it qualifies a favorite. This may seem like a silly little exercise, but it encourages the exploration of different words to express thoughts and feelings. It's even kind of fun, once you get into it.


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