Quick. What is the one thing you can do to improve your writing the most?
The answer isn’t sexy. It’s not flashy.
Instead, it’s a back-to-basic answer that directly relates to the underlying structure of your sentences.
The Answer? Improve your verbs.
I told you it wasn’t sexy. But it’s true.
I recently listened to the books-on-tape version of Red Moon, by Benjamin Percy, a hard-hitting werewolf story. Percy narrates and his deep bass voice is amazing to listen to, but his prose is even more amazing. Master of the VERB, Percy enlivens even small things. This small bit of action – getting his suitcase out to the truck – isn’t crucial to the story, but notice the great verb.
“The suitcase chews its wheels through the gravel and Patrick struggles two-handed with its weight.” From the Prologue of Red Moon, by Benjamin Percy.
How else could you write that?
The suitcase rattled through the gravel. . .
The suitcase wheels dragged through the gravel. . .
Gravel kicked up as the suitcase. . .
Clattering wheels jarred Patrick. . .
I could go on, but why? Doesn’t that verb “chew” say it all? Such economy of language! Percy is full of such gems.
I recently helped a local first-grade teacher as her class did a research paper. Yes! Under the new Common Core State Standards, first graders must do a research paper. We discussed appropriate writing goals for six-year-olds and I suggested focusing on verbs. The research topic was nutrition, so we created a Word Wall with verbs about eating. We were giving the kids words, but also modeling the importance of using the right verb. The teacher talked with the kids about verbs and then handed them a piece of aluminum foil and asked them to shape it into something that showed a particular verb. One student brought back a silver butterfly.
“What verb does that show?” asked the teacher.
“The butterfly is eating.”
“Then, can you shape its mouth? It needs a tiny tube for eating.”
Wow, we got in a biology lesson, an art lesson, and by the way, a writing lesson!
How did this play out in the student writing? After discussing great strategies to open a paper, one student wrote this:
One day, I ate three strawberries.
Then, we asked students to circle ONE verb. Notice that we made this a very manageable task, they only had to find one. When they had circled a verb, we asked the students to replace that verb with a stronger one. The student wrote this:
One day, I nibbled three strawberries.
WOW! The first grade student revised her work and added a stronger verb. The first grade research papers were enhanced by using one single strategy: use great verbs.
From Percy to first grade, it matters little what you’re writing, the idea is the same. One great verb elevates a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter faster and easier than anything else. We can forgive many other lapses of writing skill, if you master this one. Use great verbs.