Verb upgrade

I’m writing a short story at the moment, and it’s reached the point where I’m looking over the words themselves.  Part of the story is narrated by a precise kind of a person, who uses (as per last week’s post) nouns—or nominal phrases—that are specific rather than general: Langstroth boxes, not beehives; Gladstone bag rather than suitcase.

Nouns reflect a person’s point of view, but verbs tend to be a writer’s contribution, since a first-person narrator is more likely to say I went quietly than to say, I crept.  The writer, however, is free to use the full panoply of verbs, milking them for every drop of meaning.  So instead of writing, for example (from the short story):

I went in, shut the door, and turned on my torch.

the writer needs verbs that tell just what is going on with the action.  Is the person furiously taking refuge?  In that case—

I stormed inside, slammed the door, and slapped around the walls for the switch before just yanking out my torch and shoving it on.

Or is the person’s behavior surreptitious?

I stepped to the right, eased the door shut, and thumbed my hand-torch on.

Notice, too, that the noisy example feels as if just getting inside the room is itself the goal, whereas the last version seems to be moving towards something else: the reader feels that the person is closing himself quietly inside the room for a reason.

Now, I am not as phobic of modifiers as writers are urged to be in these post-Hemingway days.  I see nothing wrong in the occasional adverb, she said coyly.  But modifying a weak verb is never as effective as using a stronger verb in the first place.  Which makes more noise?

Close the door loudly.

Slam the door.

Move up there on your belly.

Wriggle up.

I dislike him intensely.

I loathe him.

This is not to suggest that every verb in a piece of writing needs to glare at the reader.  More often than not, the writer would just as soon leave the verbs more or less invisible, allowing the focus to move forward without distraction—particularly with speech markers in dialogue, when “he said” should only occasionally give way to “he replied” or “he noted”, and rarely—rarely!—be replaced by hissing or growling or muttering.

But when a scene or a piece of dialogue doesn’t seem quite as interesting as it needs to be—and particularly when that scene is key or climactic, when it needs to be amped up in the reader’s attention—take a look at the verbs.  Weeding out the modifiers and replacing them with power verbs might be all that’s needed.

Which, as I said, is what I’ll get back to doing now.

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  1. Sabrina on February 16, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I’m really enjoying these writing tips. Gives me something to think about and practice until the next Wednesday rolls around. Keep them coming and thanks for sharing.

  2. Pat Floyd on February 17, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Laurie, what a joy you are for your editors and readers! And what pleasure you give yourself in your approach to words. My favorite writing companion is a 1939 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, given me on my 1946 birthday. Roget began his classification of words in 1805 and published his thesaurus in 1852. My edition was expanded and revised by C. O. Sylvester Mawson, associated with many dictionaries including the OED and noted as being a revising editor of Sanskrit and Anglo-Indian terms. I enjoy the organization of this thesaurus, not as a dictionary, but by the nature of the words with noun, verb, adjective, and adverb synonyms and antonyms for each classification in parallel columns. An example of class of word: ABSTRACT RELATIONS, Section I: EXISTENCE, subdivision 1. Being in the abstract, 2. Being in the concrete, 3. Formal existence. One relies on the excellent index.

  3. Sonia Rumzi on February 18, 2011 at 6:51 am

    You are a delight. Thank you.

  4. Martha on February 18, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Great information. Thanks!

  5. Mom of 6 on February 22, 2011 at 11:17 am

    I stopped by to see if you might have posted again before I dug in to give a short, 4500-word, nonfiction piece I’m writing another revision. I’m so glad I did, as your post is a reminder that good writing is a process, whether mystery fiction or mere suburban flanerie. Although my goal isn’t to be published, I want to become a better writer. An example of how good writing inspires: in this essay, I incorporated a word I first heard from Beekeeper’s Apprentice (“sough”) that I think conveys exactly what I am trying to convey in part of the writing. So, if one day long ago, you had that word in your mind or found it in a handy thesaurus, thank you. Good writing can inspire.

  6. Aaron Paul Lazar on February 23, 2011 at 10:59 am


    This is a delightful piece! Thank you.

    I wonder if you’d be willing to do a guest blog with this article (or any other writing or mystery related topic) for our 2009/2010 Writer’s Digest Best 101 Writing website,

    We’d be honored to host you anytime in the next few months. Of course, selfishly, I’d be thrilled to death, since I’ve been a fan of Mary Russell and your other protags for years. ;o)

    Please email me at if you’d like to set this up. If not, no worries. Just thought I’d take the plunge and ask!


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