Monday, October 4, 2010

V is for Verb – a love letter in two parts

Part One - V

In high school a friend of mine pointed out that the very best, most dazzling words – words filled with vim, vigor, vinegar and vitality - begin with the letter V.
I quickly realized the truth of her statement and forever after the letter V has held sway in the ventricles of my heart, the veins of my body, and the velvet of my soul.


I make my case below:

Virtuous vixens vex vapid viscounts with verve.

Venal villains vacillate between vaporizing vagabonds and viewing viscera.

Vintage vampire vivifies vengeful Vulcan.

Victorious valedictorian vehemently vaporizes vigorous vegan voles voluntarily in vats of verdant vodka.

Oh, yes, I could go on.

V is for Valentine, viticulture and...vocabulary.Which brings us to...

Part Two – Verb

How many times has a critique partner or contest judge circled the various forms of To Be on a page of your writing and suggested you use a stronger verb?

Some of that is first draft-itis, right? Get it out, even if it's complete shite, because, as la Nora has said many a time, one can fix a broken page but heaven help trying to fix a blank one.

And some of it comes down to lack of vocabulary. A small pool of words to choose from leaves you limited in nuance and at the mercy of the dreaded and dreadful adverb.

For instance: She walked across the room.

Huh. Yawn.

There aren’t a lot of clues in the sentence to set tone.

So let’s try a different verb:
Maybe she sauntered across the room.
Or scooted, swayed, skipped, sidled, slipped, slithered, stepped or shimmied.

Just a random assortment of S verbs that move your character across the room...but, wow, do they impart different visuals and moods, right? If she's sauntering, maybe she has a reason to gloat or is feeling confident. If she's slithering, is she the villain? Does she sidle when she’s scared or on a mission or wants to remain unnoticed?

When you choose a load-bearing verb, you cut down on the need to explain – it’s already there in the writing. You can trim the fat until you get to the lean meat of your story.

Another example:

He ate lunch.

Double yawn.

Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes a guy just needs to eat his lunch and move along. But you can convey so much when said guy shovels lunch down his gullet. Or drinks it. Or masticates each bite forty times before swallowing. Take advantage of our English lexicon. It’s there for our benefit and our readers’ pleasure.

If you find yourself using the same verbs (or words) over and over (the R8 calls these 'echoes' and we all suffer them, alas), I have two suggestions that might help.

First, while at your revisions, try keeping your computer's thesaurus open alongside your WIP. When you run into a morass of to be’s, to have’s, to do’s, or to make’s, start playing with the thesaurus to see if another verb can pull the freight instead. You won’t (and shouldn’t) replace all of the to be’s, etc., in your writing. But, with vigilance, you can guard against their proliferation.

Second, take a dictionary to bed with you. Stop laughing! (Guffawing, chortling, snorting, giggling and in general pointing your finger at the screen and sniggering). I'm serious, grab a lightweight dictionary, open at random, read a page or two. Not only will you expand your vocab and thereby increase the color options in your palette,'ll probably put you to sleep PDQ.

Two birds, one stone. No more insomnia and a head stuffed with delicious new words. Of course, my advice is to turn to the V section first. Vs rock.

So tell me, what's your favorite V word? Or verb? What verbs do you tend to overuse? What's a broken sentence you drafted then fixed in the revision?


  1. Oh, can I tell my favorite Verb story? I used to work as a technical editor. One day I had one of the engineers I worked with slam his hands down on his desk and bellow, "I am a TECHNICAL WRITER! I do NOT need verbs in my sentences!" It took two layers of management, but I did actually win that argument.

  2. How about 'verisimilitude'? Now there's a V word!!

    Good post about verbs. I think trying to make our language as vivid and descriptive as possible make for a more pleasurable reading experience.

    I'm not as anti-adverbs as others who insist you leave them all out. I like me a good adverb or two, here and there.

  3. Robin - that is one for the history books! Guy might not have liked verbs, but he definitely had a sense of humor!

    Diane - I like a judicious adverb sprinkled in here and there too. But save me from a page filled with he verbed-ly and she verbed-ly that. Much better to find the right verb!

  4. Uh...sorry, Keely, he was actually serious. He was VERY angry with me for insisting that his sentence actually said NOTHING. He held a grudge for quite a while.

  5. Oh no!! That's horrible! He must have been a venal villain!

  6. Keely - I use two prepositions together on first drafts. It's part of my regional vernacular. {smile}

    I also had a bad "that" habit at one point. It was like a monkey on my back, man.

    Robin, sorry to hear about your work experience. There's always at least one in every office who's cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

  7. Great post, Keely. I love strong verbs and try to go back through and fix the boring ones in edits. I think "V" is a good letter. I just named the villain (that's a good "V" noun) in my second book, "Voldor". I made it up. I don't think it's a real name, but I liked the way it sounded.

    "Vaulted" is a good "V" verb.

    The vivacious vixen vaulted over the edge of the veranda and viciously fried the vulgar viscount villain with a high voltage wire.

    That was fun!

  8. I find certain drafts... or certain days... lead me into a verb rut. Don't you?

    Late last week, all my characters in my new WIP "stepped" somewhere. Up to the porch, out of the car... you name it. Everyone stepped.

    Lucky for me you really can fix a written page, rather than a blank one. Whew!

    This week, all my characters are "escaping."

    Which means I'd better go corral them!

  9. Meanwhile, I'm just glad my critique group knows their verbs/adverbs/adjectives etc. I am very ("v" word!) grateful!