Writing Secrets: Verbs are not always “doing” words

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Verbs, we were taught at school, are doing words. We began to think of all verbs as busy little words, virtuous and strong.

We never learnt that some verbs are busier than others, and some just plain lazy. Last week, I was talking about personal writing tics. But mentor a number of manuscripts each month, and you’ll notice that we have collective habits too, things we have all got used to. These tics, I suppose, are like the slang of writing practice.

“Grab” is one of the main culprits. That verb hardly lifts its blubbery self from its bum. I may have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating because I still keep seeing it.

Characters grab their girlfriends, their keys, their drinks, handbags, and often, some shut-eye.  Other characters plonk down their change, their books or their bottoms into chairs and still more plump themselves into couches, onto floors and beds. These have become the all-purpose verbs for every occasion.

“Walk” is another one. There are so many different ways of walking: striding, sloping, skipping, shuffling, sashaying … and even some that don’t alliterate. Why just reach for plain old walk, which tells us very little?

One of our participants recently had her protagonist rush everywhere. She rushed through to the kitchen and back to pack her things. She even rushed to the bathroom.

Verbs can be the most powerful words you use. We don’t always grab our drink. Sometimes we slide it forward, grasp it in two hands or even clasp it. We might clench it in a fist or extend two indolent fingers and encircle the stem.

Verbs do more than one thing: they tell us about characters, while making their actions more precise. If someone doesn’t do something in a very specific way, then don’t include it at all.

In other words, if there’s nothing special about the way your character reaches for his drink, then simply write: He crossed to the patio, drink in hand. We will understand that he picked it up. You don’t necessarily need to tell us so.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Walking the tightrope of too much or too little

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