The Write Practice

The Online Writing Workbook

Energize Your Writing with this Easy Trick

If your writing seems a little dull, tap into this easy trick—focus on the verbs. Using direct, precise, and active verbs instantly makes your writing stronger.

These verbs move your story forward, create powerful imagery, and convey a confident tone.

Jumping in Leaves

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

Vivid Verbs

Direct

Avoid “to be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) and other linking verbs. You may not be able to eliminate them completely, but replacing linking verbs with action verbs will more effectively communicate your point.

Example: It was a beautiful day. // The day sparkled with a bright sun.

Precise

Select the best verb for what you’re trying to convey. And don’t rely on adjectives and adverbs to do all the work. The right verb has the power to bring an image to mind with a single word.

Example: He quickly poured a cup of coffee. // He dumped coffee into the mug.

Active

Construct sentences in the active voice, meaning the subject performs an action. (Passive voice occurs when the object is acted upon by a subject—or the subject may be left out completely.) In some instances, passive voice makes more sense. But in most cases, active verbs will strengthen your writing.

Example: The cake was baked by my aunt. // My aunt baked the cake.

Do you use direct, precise, and active verbs?

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes. Pay special attention to the verbs you use. (An extra challenge—should you choose to take it on: try not to include any adjectives and adverbs. It will force you to use stronger verbs.)

When you’re finished, please share your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please respond to some of the other comments too!

About Melissa Tydell

Melissa Tydell is a freelance writer, content consultant, and blogger who enjoys sharing her love of the written word with others. You can connect with Melissa through her website, blog, or Twitter.

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  • AlexBrantham

    Hmmm, no adjectives either – tricky, let’s see what we can do!

    The pain from the little toe on Joe’s right foot stabbed him like a knife. He tried stretching his leg out, unravelling it from its neighbours, but nothing shifted it. Next, he bounced up and down, but this just meant that the rattle from the coins in his tin startled a passer-by: not so much that he stopped, of course.

    One hour gone, another to go. The collecting tin still echoed when he shook it, proclaiming its emptiness to the world. He considered accosting the shoppers as they ambled by – “Give me your money”, perhaps, or “You don’t need it, give it to me.”

    Damn, the Hare Krishna lot were coming back down the street. Joe didn’t object to them, as such, but he knew that when they passed everyone would be looking at them, not him: another five minutes with no return on his time. He couldn’t resist their siren call, either: he turned to watch and listen to the singing, the chanting, the jingling bells. Not a care in the world as they danced their way through the Saturday morning crowd, dispensing leaflets and a moment of calm to all and sundry.

    At last, they departed. Joe tried eyeballing some people as they emerged from the shopping centre, attempting to engender a sense of guilt or obligation: but he failed, no-one bit on the lure of self-satisfaction that he offered.

    The clock on the town hall ticked onwards towards his deadline. At this rate, he had no chance of being the top collector for the day, and his plan of using this feat to impress Amy would fail.

    He looked across the street at the bank, and its cash machine. He felt the press of his wallet in his pocket, and the cards therein: they called to him. “Use me. You know you want to.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/theauthorrwfoster R.w. Foster

      Fascinating. Please tell me there is more.

    • The Striped Sweater

      What does the first paragraph have to do with the rest of the story? Does his toe hurt from standing or sitting too long while trying to collect money?

      And why is he trying to collect money?

    • Winnie

      Like that last sentence. Isn’t that what all credit cards do? Make you spend money you don’t have?

    • Catherine Morrell

      You did an excellent job of avoiding all those passive verbs. Having dealt with many panhandlers during my college years this rang very true. Two thumbs up.

  • http://twitter.com/atuaStephanieN Stéphanie Noël

    Great advice. I’ve heard it said several times. Cluttered sentences are harder to read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/theauthorrwfoster R.w. Foster

    The punches of the Chronomancer rained down on Carter. He
    paid them no heed, too numb by what he’d done. A distinct crack as his jaw gave
    way under the other man’s heavy hits. Her screams, and begging echoed through
    his mind. Though she pleaded with him to stop, he did not. He’d given into his
    baser urges like an animal. He deserved this. Everything. His eyes gushed water
    when his nose was broken.

    Sera ran over and grabbed Robilar’s arm. “Stop hitting him!”
    He growled and shook her off. “I mean it, he’s not responsible for what
    happened to Dearbhaile! Look at him!”

    “He makes me fucking sick. To think I looked up to the
    bastard.” He whirled on the smaller woman. “And how dare you try to defend him! I caught him!”

    “Would the Carter Blake you know rape his beloved? Would he
    just stand there and take the beating you’re giving him?”

    Both men turned to look at her. “Speak sense, girl,” the
    Chronomancer growled.

    “Look, I don’t know my brother as well as you do, Robilar,
    but I do know he’s not the type to rape.”

    “There’s the slight problem of I caught him in the fucking
    act!”

    “Maybe he wasn’t in control,” she said.

    “Stop trying to defend him, Sera! His actions are
    inexcusable and indefensible.”

    “What if Drago used a spell to control his body and mind?
    Will you condemn Carter for what is entirely plausible?”

    “Check,” Carter mumbled. The pain of the shattered jaw was
    excruciating, but he could deal with it.

    Robilar growled, not willing to give them the satisfaction
    of trying to excuse the bastard, yet there was a small feeling wiggling at the
    back of his mind. ‘What if she’s right?’

    “I’ll call Dearbhaile.” A big hand on her shoulder stopped
    Sera. She glanced up to her big brother shaking his head. “No? I don’t know of
    anyone else who has the kind of power to tell.” Carter slapped Robilar’s chest,
    driving him back a couple steps. “Robilar? Do you know of someone?”

    He rubbed his sore sternum. ‘Shit. I forgot how strong the Walker really is. Sera wasn’t kidding
    about him allowing me to hit him. That slap felt like he was smacking the back
    of my ribs from the inside. Ow.’

    “Yeah,” he croaked.

    Robilar concentrated, and pulled on the time stream. A sparkling orange portal appeared. He
    reached into it and, with a mighty heave, withdrew a wizened Snebbli. He
    collapsed against the stone wall, breathing hard. The Snebbli glared up at the
    Chronomancer.

    “What do you want, Time Mage?” he squeaked. He could only
    point at Sera and Carter. The Snebbli’s eyes widened when he saw the Walker of
    World’s, and he knelt.

    “We need something done for us,” Sera said.

    He shook his head. “I cannot. If I do it, bad things wil-”

    Carter yanked him up by the collar and held him there. “Do
    it.”

    The little being blanched, then nodded his head. Carter set
    him gently on the floor. Eyes closed, he touched the big human’s hand. A
    crackle of electricity echoed through the room. He slowly looked up at the
    Walker. Carter’s insides turned to ice. His heart pounded in his ears. His body
    shook. The elderly wizard nodded.

    Sera held her breath, bracing for the explosion. Her hands
    felt clammy. The room tilted crazily as she trembled. ‘I should get out of here before he loses control. Move, feet!’ Sweat
    broke out on her brow as she watched her brother.

    His veins popped out
    in his neck. His throat worked, trying to release the feelings building within
    him. His big hands bunched to fists, knuckles crackling and veins popping out.
    Carter’s chest heaved like bellows building a fire. He shook his head
    side-to-side. His eyes showed the sclera clearly before they turned a glowing
    electric blue and he bellowed, a primal scream. With an explosion that knocked
    dust from the ceiling, he vanished. Goosebumps raced over her body.

    Dearbhaile ran in. “Do nae tell Carter what happened,” she
    yelled.

    “Too late,” said Robilar. “He’s gone.”

    “Oh, shit.”

    A huge feast was arrayed before the four coconspirators. Drago
    lifted a goblet and took a noisy drink. “Trust me Samhaine, the Walker of
    Worlds will not be a factor any longer. I took care of that.”

    “An’ how did ye manage that, Dwarf?”

    His upper lips curled at being addressed so callously. ‘Soon, Demon. I will kill you, too.’ He
    reached into an inner pocket of the waistcoat he wore. He held up a blue-white
    gem shaped like a fist. “The Fist of Ra.”

    Samhaine sat back in his chair. “A mighty artifact. How did
    you come by it.”

    “A half-troll that he thinks is on his side brought it to me
    a fortnight ago. She has proven to be a most useful spy.”

    A gaunt and skeletal female with withered flesh stretched
    tight against horribly visible bones leaned forward. Bright pinpoints of
    crimson light burned brightly in otherwise empty eye sockets. “What did you
    do?” she croaked, a blast of decayed air flowing over the table from her mouth.

    “I commanded he rape his beloved Keeper.”

    “That’s twisted,” said the last. A crown of horns circled his head. Large,
    bat-like wings were furled on his back. A scaled, ebony hide covered his
    muscular frame. “I like it.”

    “Thank you, Lucien. That’s quite a compliment.”

    “Did ye witness it?” Samhaine licked his lips as he leaned
    forward.

    “Yes, and it was-”

    An explosion shook the room. Food flew from the table. Before
    Drago, crouched on the edge, was a muscular young human. Sable hair hung over
    his shoulders. Form-fitting silvery, purple-green armor gleamed in the
    torchlight. He slowly raised his head. Sparkling, electric blue eyes pinned the
    dark dwarf to his seat. “Drago.”

    In all their eons of existence, none present had ever heard a
    voice filled with such menace and rage. Samhaine rose, bowed, and vanished. The
    lich rose and lunged at the crouched man. A powerful blow spun her head three
    hundred sixty degrees. She flopped into a chair, clutching her skull, dizzy.
    Lucien, wings snapping out, flew across the room, claws outstretched. The human
    caught the Demon King by the throat and slung him through a wall.

    “Who are you?” Drago asked, immediately hating the quaver in his
    voice.

    “Death.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/margaretterrycanada Margaret Terry

    this is a great exercise – in Stephen King’s book on writing (one of my fav. writing books!) he echos your advice by telling writer’s to remove every single word that ends in “ly”. His belief is if we have to use an adverb, we are using the wrong verb…I decided to edit my own work from a post I wrote here for “fiction vs non fiction” the other day.

    Here’s the original: “Scarlet didn’t say a thing. She knew she had to sit statue still until it was the right time.”

    The edit: “Scarlet held her breath. She had learned to sit statue still until it was the right time.”

    • The Striped Sweater

      I think they’re both good, depending upon what’s around them. “Held her breath” is more vivid, but “didn’t say a thing,” echoes a common idiom in conversation. It evokes past programming Scarlet has internalized.

    • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

      Huge Stephen King fan here. I must say, he doesn’t follow his own advice well because he uses “ly” words constantly! (see what I did there!?)

  • The Striped Sweater

    I don’t think I did very well at this one, but here’s my 15 minutes worth. I am going to try to be disciplined and participate every day, even if I’m not super happy with my product. :)

    Pounding the pavement is a hell of a way to spend a summer
    day. Joe trotted down the street in his runner’s best, hoping he didn’t look
    like a fraud. Running was a pain for Joe. Joe Normal. Joe Medium. Joe faster
    than the slow folks and slower than the fast. Joe who could never seem to fit
    the bill for any given crowd. Joe who was always fakin’ it ‘til he was makin’
    it. “Am I makin’ it?” he grumbled as he shook the sweat from his eyes.

    Joe was running for life, for love, to make a place for himself in the world. He was fighting for fitness and physique, but if he was honest with himself, he was
    fighting for respect. Joe was neither up nor down, neither down nor out, so
    perfectly neutral that he couldn’t tell up from down. He plodded along, placing
    one foot in front of another until he skidded back in through his front door.

    “Honey, I’m home!”

    “How was your run, sweetie?” chirped his wife, Joy.

    “Meh, the usual. I’m making
    progress, but I’m still behind the curve.”

    “You’re your own worst critic.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/karl.tobar Karl Tobar

    I have a question about replacing adverbs and linking verbs. The internet and most books about writing agree to avoid using adverbs. “Got a word that ends with ‘ly’? For the love of God man, GET IT OUT OF THERE!”
    But then I hear advice about assonance and syllable counts and some sentences just flow better–things like this. Could Shakespeare have written in iambic pentameter without using adverbs? Maybe a bad example but I hope you get the point.
    I guess my question is what if you are in the process of editing your manuscript and you have the most beautiful, most eloquently written sentence you have ever written. Then you have to change the structure of the entire sentence, and you can’t say “humbly” but you need something that “um” sound. What do you do in that situation?

  • http://pulledmolars.wordpress.com/ Boyd

    Not entirely happy with what I wrote from this, but still a fun exercise. Here it is.

    I slammed my hand down flat on the page. The Credoroium responded with a sizzle, its pages corroding, some kind of flame shooting out from the tips of my fingers reducing the paper to ash. The walls of the tomb shouted, thunder clapped about my ears causing them to pop before deafening the sound. I
    slumped as the bones of my spine pushed themselves apart as though wedged by opposing magnetic slates. All my energy was being syphoned by the book and was taken with the ash as it floated towards a hollow point in the ceiling.

    The patterns inside the empty funnel sparkled, for every piece of ash that was sucked up through it an ember twirled down and flew around the room. I remembered Hudson telling me that the book would ask I touch it and no matter what I was not to oblige. But it had beckoned me, convinced me that through nothing more than the wander of my palm I would be given my dreams and more and I whispered back to it ‘Anything.’

    Imagine Hudson’s face if he stood beside me. There, a gleam in his eye, his worry about the Credoroium’s power and my complacency forfilled. No doubt, he would try to wash it away with premeditated concern to no avail. I would be scorned at, at times he might run out of things to yell at me, struggling between sounding fearful on my behalf and jeering at my dismay. If I’ve never seen Hudson terrified, I surely would have now. If he were here.

    But I was alone in the tomb with Credoroium pulling the life out of me, surrounding me with it in some kind of automated ritual.

    My eyes sunk in, my cheeks thinned. I felt the horror of my face as the muscle deteriorated and my skull fanned out from behind my skin. Thankful to have not been able to see myself in such a state, soon, to my horror, my arms followed suit. They became thin, too, and it frightened me greatly to see every bone in my hand and forearm, every vein, nerve, and the space between where there was once pockets of flesh.

    It took all that was left of me to tear away.

    • Winnie

      Great exercise. Lost count of all the verbs, but felt tired out after reading it.

    • Catherine Morrell

      The fun thing about doing these little exercises is that we can always go back and tweak. Your story brought an emotional response, but I do encourage you to go through and dump as many “was” as you can just to tighten it up. I can get rid of the passive verbs, but I struggle with the heart rending narrative that you captured beautifully.

  • Winnie

    He banged his head against the clinic-white tiles that surrounded him. But the tune stuck fast in his head. Scared that the lyrics would overflow into his mouth, grab his tongue and shout them out to the shoppers that shuffled round the Mall, almost frozen into icy immobility by the sub-Arctic temperatures that the state-of-the-art air-conditioner had created, he covered his mouth with both hands, stifling the words that forced themselves out between his fingers.
    Scared that those outside could hear him, he rushed up to the mirror. Ice crystals whitened his eyebrows and moustache. He banged them off against the glass, so hard it shattered, leaving a jigsaw-puzzle-face staring at him.
    A noise outside the door spun him round. A team of overalled technicians had burst in. They stared up at the piping skirting the walls. “Too late,” he managed to warn between the song lyrics that poured out of his mouth.
    “Another crazy,” muttered one of them. “This malfunction has affected everybody.”
    Just then the Mall siren went off. Outside the sound of running police feet drowned out the piped music, and murmurs turned to screams.
    If he stepped outside they’d surely take him in. He rushed into a cubicle, slammed the door shut, locked himself in. “Come and get me,” he muttered. The sound of an axe chopping through steel piping pierced his head, making him bite his tongue. He stood on the seat and stuck his head over the partition. Before he could open his mouth it struck him. The song in his head had played itself out.
    Now he could leave before he froze to death.

  • Catherine Morrell

    THIS IS THE ORIGINAL FROM AN OLD POST.

    Wind was whipping through Annabeth’s soft curls. The white haze over the ocean hurt her eyes. But the ocean felt like home. Instead of a sea of wheat it was a sea of currealean blue.

    Inhaling deeply, she tasted the tangy salt air on her tongue. He sinuses cleared and she closed her eyes to feel the heat of the suns rays mingle with the wind raising goose bumps across her flesh.
    “mmmmmm” she fairly sighed to herself. It was such a joyous feeling. She Heard Ben and Charles whooping it up in the distance at the waters edge. She heard seagulls call and the soft throm of the ocean waves breathing in and out on the sand. She felt her mom put her hand on her shoulder humming contentendly also. Annabeth did not open her eyes. She knew her ma was savoring the sounds and smells too. They could use their eyes again in a moment.

    HERE IS THE REWRITE AND CORRECTIONS:

    Wind whipped through Annabeth’s soft curls. The white haze over the ocean burned her eyes. But the ocean felt like home. Instead of a sea of wheat rustling, a sea of soft blue and rhythmic pounding calmed her frayed nerves.

    Inhaling deeply, she tasted the tangy salt air on her tongue. Her sinuses cleared. She closed her eyes to feel the heat of the suns rays mingle with the wind raising goose bumps across her flesh.

    “Mmmmmm” she sighed to herself. Ben and Charles whooped at the waters edge. Seagulls shrieked. The soft thrum of the ocean waves breathed in and out on the sand. Joy bubbled up from her toes.

    Annabeth felt Ma place a warm hand on her bare shoulder. The soft harmony of humming let her know Ma savored the sounds and smells too. The eyes waited their turn.

  • Aire

    Spring came to the enclosure. The bloated river overflowed our square acre, the youngers danced in the brackish water, trying to sit on lilypads and sinking in neck-high with the frogs and flies every time. Mother moaned to Fate, as no one else would listen; Papa resolutely smoked his pipe. I joined him on the porch. I thought of June, and to what use the frogs and profuse cattails might be put in our kitchen. I watched Sam Jr. select a straight stick from the remains of our woodpile. He thrust it straight out like a fencer, seemed pleased with the balance, and rushed headlong into the deeper water. Realizing his intention, I called out.

    “Are you planning to eat those frogs, Sam?”

    “Why?”

    “You eat what you kill.”

    Sam sliced the water with his stick. “You never let me have fun!”

    Something crashed in the house. I looked to Papa, but he sat in the little porch seat with his eyes shut. With a sigh, I went inside to check on Mother. She slumped over the table; her shoulders heaved.

    “I know you’re not crying, Mother.”

    Raising her head, she glared at me with dry red eyes.

    “Fine. The blue jug is broken, and I’m not sorry.”

    “All right.”

    As I started for the broom cupboard, she snapped, “Don’t clean a thing.”

    “Yes, Mother,” I sighed.

    In this way, we had lost the green plates with the yellow flowers, Papa’s mother’s antique teapot, now the blue jug. Each spring, Mother tried without success to raise Papa’s indolent temper. Even the youngers took bets on which of our few heirlooms would suffer Mother’s “spring fit.”