Monday, July 25, 2011

Verbs, verbs, verbs

Last week, I had the opportunity to tune into a webinar by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski. Jacqui has spent 30 years in the newspaper business, both as a reporter and editor. She holds a Knight Chair professorship at the Missouri School of Journalism, is an editing fellow at the Poynter Institute and coaches student and professional journalists around the world.

Her webinar was on Adding Verbs with Verve and Volume to Your Writing. Here’s some of what she had to say. I’m sharing it with my literary friends because I think that what she says applies to all writing. So, here’s what I remember:

1.Verbs drive sentences and hold them together. Nouns label; without verbs, they do nothing.

2. The strongest writing is visual, and verbs achieve this. Paint pictures with verbs.

3. Verbs drive the bus (and the story). They drive the action and draw the reader in.

4. Verbs attribute. Do not “trick them out.” “Said” says it all. Don’t say “articulated” or “reiterated.” Say “said.” Readers will read right over “said.” Don’t dress up the part of speech that doesn’t need to be dressed up. “A pig is a pig is a pig and it’s just fine.”

5. Also, watch loaded verbs, such as acknowledged, argued, defended.

6. On whether to use “says” or “said,” Jacqui says that “said” feels more definitive and declarative while “says” feels more casual and timeless.

7. Ditch the adverbs. –ly adverbs just make work awkward. Read your writing out loud. Look at all the –ly verbs and try to find a better verb. ie. instead of walked heavily, say trudged. Instead of sang lustily, use belted or wailed.

8. Better to use strong verb to show rather than adverb to tell.

9. Verbs elevate.

10. Verbs show energy and action.

11. Verbs put you in the scene.

12. Verbs show (the visible, emotional and metaphorical) ie. slouched is a verb that shows action

13. Verbs add (or subtract) volume. Don’t overdo them, though.

14. Verbs bend time. Writers struggle with transitions. Change verb tense to change time or tone.

15. Verbs surprise. Ie. Sun slams down. Insects buzz. Pregnant moon rises.

16. Verbs provide structure. Keep them parallel for power.

17. Jacqui suggests printing out your story and highlighting the verbs then reviewing the verbs to make sure they’re as strong and precise as they can be.

18. Play with language to enchant, surprise and provoke.

19. Language is a tool; writing is a craft.

20. Verbs are the only part of our language that can stand alone and make perfect sense: Go. Home. Imagine. Pray. Dream. Sing. Ask. Speak. Swim. March.


  1. I love that advice. I'd ad one caveat: occasionally (and only on RARE occasions), adverbs should be added into a manuscript just to slow the narrative down, add some flavor and texture, and get the action to under control.

  2. Love the advice. I am always on the look out for stronger verbs. I wish there was an online list we could go to when we're looking for inspiration.

  3. I need to post this on my editing wall, checklist. Thanks for giving such great advice.

  4. Wonderful post Buffy! I think it is important to double check every sentence after you have written your completed draft.