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Deadly Don’t #2 ~ Weak Verbs

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Here’s another one Strunk & White (The Elements of Style) as well as your English teacher probably told you. Like the wisdom inherent in Mom’s advice to eat your veggies, this method for producing great copy is so grounded in real-world results it’s hard to deny.

Author Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar with the Poynter Institute, said it better than I could, so I won’t try to improve on his advice:

…Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players. President John F. Kennedy testified that his favorite book was From Russia With Love, the 1957 James Bond adventure by Ian Fleming. The power in Fleming’s prose flows from the use of active verbs. In sentence after sentence, page after page, England’s favorite secret agent, or his beautiful companion, or his villainous adversary performs the action of the verb.

Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains. He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights on the dressing-table. He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower. … He cleaned his teeth and gargled with a sharp mouthwash to get rid of the taste of the day and turned off the bathroom light and went back into the bedroom.

Bond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains open and looking out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon. The night breeze felt wonderfully cool on his body. He looked at his watch. It said two o'clock.

Bond gave a shuddering yawn. He let the curtains drop back into place. He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat…[1]

You already know from that long list in Deadly Don’t #1 that weak verbs such as was, is, and will be make for limp writing. Yes, at times you’ll need to use them; just be sure it’s not most of the time.

As you write, train your brain to think of strong verbs to carry your story or message across. Your readers will thank you for it—even if they can’t quite pinpoint why your writing is so enjoyable.

Divine Do: Use muscular verbs in your writing.

[1] Excerpted from Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2008).

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