Enliven Your Verbs

     Years ago, in journalism school, we students were taught to choose our verbs with great care. Verbs, we were assured, were to express action, but not nuance. For example, we were not to write, “Politician Paul claims to be working on the problem,” or “Politican Paul professes to be working on the problem.” Instead, we were to write, “Politican Paul said he was working on the problem.” The idea behind the less expressive verb was to show the action being taken, but not allow the broadcast or publication of any perceived or actual writer bias.

     The rules have since changed, for a host of reasons, including, I suspect, a desire to give the audience more of a sense of what’s really happening. The journalist with twenty years experience in the market, who knows he’s being snowballed by someone, doesn’t want to become that person’s mouthpiece by reporting action without context.

     It’s also a simple matter of writing more interesting copy. Ninety said’s in one newscast is pretty dull, indeed.

     I was trained to be unexpressive in verb choice and still, generally, use neutral verbs in my news copy. Writing fiction, however, is a whole other matter, and we writers can and should break free from the bondage of boring verbs and pen / scribble / jot / scratch / type verbs that are exact and lively. Like that?

     Great writing comprises great verbs, we know. The verbs should mesmerize us; possess us to feel the emotion and see the imagery that the author exudes. So when creating the story, get yourself a great thesaurus and simply go crazy. Watch your writing burst to life before your eyes. I did.

4 replies
  1. Randi
    Randi says:

    Hi Silvia,

    I love your blog page, the page graphics in themselves are so soothing. I can imagine that we are having a cup of coffee together.

    Writing is a very interesting subject to me, one that we are embarking upon in our home schooling journey. My son who is in 6th grade this year does suffer from the dreaded writers block. I think I will have a conversation with him today about choosing his verbs. You are a great example of perseverance to him.

    Your quote about reading not following a time table is great! I see great value in reading aloud to our children books that are over their heads, books that will force them to think and grow their minds. It is frustrating to me to see all of the simple language and nonsense books out their geared to our children. We really do cheat them out of their intelligence by indulging them in such simplicity.

    Thanks for sharing your inner thoughts with us! We look foreword to visiting with you both on your blog and in other arenas.


  2. Silvia
    Silvia says:


    The graphics were created by Jeff Miracola. Check him out at http://www.jeffmiracola.com.

    I believe that sometimes people suffer writer’s block because they feel that what they have to say is of little value or that no one will be interested. That’s nonsense, of course, but we all know that self-defeating thoughts can sometimes enter our heads, and kids, after all, are so often treated as lesser citizens that they may fear what they write will be put down for its grammatical errors or simplicity. I’m trying to teach my kids to “just write” too, to just put down a story without fear of reprisal. It’s not always easy, as I see, both you and I have experienced.

    As for the quote, yes, I love, love, love it, too. Kids *can* handle more complicated writing. They’ll ask questions about meaning and vocabulary, and that’s great. All they need are a good dictionary and a caring adult to help them work through the parts they don’t understand. We do a disservice to our children when we allow them to “grovel and creep in infancy,” as described by John Adams. Kids deserve better.

    And thank you for saying you’ll stick around to read more! Maybe we’ll do coffee together! 🙂


  3. Rebecca Laffar-Smith
    Rebecca Laffar-Smith says:

    Perhaps the dullness of their verbiage is a large part of why newspaper reports can be dull overall. For so long they’ve pandered to the safe. Avoiding being creative for fear of slander accusations or bias.

    By being more selective with verbs we can actually enliven our writing. The most important thing is to find the ‘right’ verb.

    Perhaps reporter bias is actually a GOOD thing. It offers readers a chance to see a little personality from the person writing the report. It adds a sense of humanity to the news.

    They make an effort to highlight that aspect in visual news by having reporters on site to connect with viewers and experience the news first hand. Why shouldn’t print media encourage the same? There is no reason why news reports should be completely devoid of personal opinion. I suspect the dry manner of reporting means they have less readers than they could potentially have.

    Look to blogging after all. It’s the blogs that voice opinion on major news events that tend to do extremely well. The blogs with character are far more entertaining for readers than those that state ‘only the facts’.

  4. Silvia
    Silvia says:

         I think it’s fair to say that many news organizations (broadcast and print) were surprised by the success of alternative — and opinionated — media. A vocal part of the viewership/readership was telling media organizations that they wanted unbiased news. Yet, the success of some media, which clearly leaned left or right, proved that another (perhaps less vocal) part of the audience was perfectly okay with personality and opinion; in fact, they prefered it.

         Even some reporters I know prefer less of the “just-the-facts-ma’am” kind of wording. They say “telling it like it is” feels more intellectually honest to them. They’d rather say Leader Smith was “dodging” the media again, if that’s his trend, than, “He didn’t return our call,” which is factually correct but does not give the audience the whole picture of that leader. After all, there’s a large part of the audience that wouldn’t have opportunity to seek certain news-makers, so they wouldn’t know, unless we tell them, whether this leader is open to scrutiny or whether he tends to disdain answering to anyone.

    These trends may be cyclical, however, and the way people present their information, news, and opinion may be very different fifty years from now.

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