Does your writing sound ... boring? In your mind you can see the story/article playing out, full of excitement and action, and when you write it on the page what stares back at you is a lake on a still summer day. Nap inducing.
The key to engaging writing is in the verb!
Verbs are a very powerful part of the sentence. For the most part they are describing an action. You can be general in describing the action, “I crossed the street,” or you can be bang on and paint a picture. “I hobbled across the street.”
Did you know that there are different types of verbs? Verbs are essentially broken down into two categories: static verbs and action verbs.
These are the verbs that lounge around on the sofa thinking
about what all the action verbs are up to.
These are the verbs that are, you guessed it, active.
So what’s the main difference between the two and why should we care? Well the static verbs do not like to be the centre of attention. Think Cormac McCarthy. The dynamic verbs demand attention. Think E.L. James.
It appears old Mr. Hollingsworth is here.
Gretchen screeched and then slapped at the mosquito.
In the first example the picture is painted from the use of the adjective (old) and the noun (Mr. Hollingsworth). The verb falls into the shadows.
In the second example it is all about the screeching and slapping. The verbs take centre stage.
Other types of verbs:
Sensing verbs – feel, look, taste, smell, and sound. These verbs swing both ways depending on how we use them.
The garden smells like oranges.
I was smelling the coffee.
The first example put emphasis on the garden and the oranges (there is no action), whereas the second example is about the action of smelling.
I don't want to turn this post into a grammar lesson on verbs because it could literally go on for pages, so I’m going to stop here and move on to how you can improve your writing by checking your verbs.
In order to engage our reader we need to make them feel like they are
part of whatever is happening on the page
We want to lure them in (fiction), encourage them to take action (copywriting), allow them to experience what we experienced (non-fiction/memoir), or help them understand the possibility of ideas (books on business, parenting, self-help...). This is not to suggest that there isn’t a place for static verbs, some types of descriptions rely on them, but action verbs, especially carefully selected ones, can really bring a piece of writing to life.
Go through your writing and using a coloured pen, circle all the verbs. Next, ask yourself if this verb is doing the best job possible. Try replacing it with a different, more descriptive verb, and see what happens. Remember, verbs create movement and connection to the text.
Keep an ongoing list of your favourite verbs. Perhaps you like the way they bring an action to life, or perfectly describe a feeling.
Lust, devour, halt, fizzle, jiggle, cradle, rally, spawn, saunter, trudge….
Here’s a fun writing exercise to help you become more aware of the power of verbs: write a scene about a place, without using adjectives or adverbs. Use nouns and verbs to make it dynamic, descriptive, and engaging. Feel free to post a few lines in the comment section below!
As an editor, and someone who often works with text from non-native English speakers to improve flow and readability, I am a bit obsessive about verbs. We live in an a world that is saturated with text and for the most part we scan because we just don’t have the time, or we feel like we’ve read the same type of content before. We are looking for the key points, the take away, the value. I can assure you, verbs have all the power when it comes to securing your readers attention!