Wilbers: Use strong action verbs to drive home your point

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 23, 2014 - 2:00 PM

The verb is the engine that drives the sentence.

In “The tracks made a line in the snow,” the engine lacks horsepower. In “The tracks cut a line in the snow,” the engine has thrust. To make your writing memorable, use strong verbs.

Note the vivid verbs Jan Zita Grover uses in “Northern Waters”:

“The storm rocked us all night long; I realized then that I hadn’t known how magnified the sound of rain could be when stretched across the tympanum of a tent. . . . Over the howl of wind, I waited for the slow, toothy parting of tree tissue, the rushing descent of a spindly jack as it gathered speed to crush our defenseless nylon dome. My body hair bristled with electricity.”

Note, too, Grover’s use of the verb-inspired nouns and adjectives howl, parting and rushing descent.

In contrast, consider the following serviceable but highly forgettable job-related writing. Replace the nondescript verb have experienced and the lifeless phrases higher level, considerable increase, significant rise and substantial growth with action verbs.

“As a result of this delay, we have experienced a higher level of unscheduled downtime, a considerable increase in maintenance issues, a significant rise in frustration on the part of our technicians and a substantial growth in dissatisfaction expressed by our customers.”

Did you use strong verbs such as forced, shut down, squander, placate and appease, as well as verb-inspired adjectives such as avoidable repairs, disgruntled technicians and outraged customers so that the passage reads something like this?

“This delay forced us to shut down our generators for two weeks, squander half a million dollars for avoidable repairs, placate our disgruntled technicians and appease our outraged customers.”

Note that the vague references to a higher level of unscheduled downtime and a considerable increase in maintenance issues have been replaced with more definite references to two weeks and half a million dollars.

As you can see, vivid verbs and verb-inspired adjectives make a powerful combination.

Colum McCann uses action verbs in the opening paragraph of “TransAtlantic”:

“The cottage sat at the edge of the lough. She could hear the wind and rain whipping across the expanse of open water: It hit the trees and muscled its way into the grass.”

(A lough is an Irish-English word for loch or lake.)

Note the strong verbs sat, hear, whipping, hit, muscled. Pretty muscular words, wouldn’t you say?

After revealing the source of the “odd sounds from the roof,” McCann writes, “The shells pinged first, silent a moment as they bounced, followed by a jingling roll along the roof until they tumbled down into the long grass, spotted with whitewash.”

(Jingling and spotted are actually participles, but they’re in the verb family.)

Now select a paragraph from your own writing. Mark the verbs. Ask yourself: Are you trying to drive home your point with an underpowered engine?

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