280+ Strong Verbs: 3 Tips to Strengthen Your Verbs in Writing 

by Joe Bunting | 0 comments

Strong verbs transform your writing from drab, monotonous, unclear, and amateurish to engaging, professional, and emotionally powerful.

Which is all to say, if you're not using strong verbs in your writing, you're missing one of the most important stylistic techniques.

Why listen to Joe? I've been a professional writer for more than a decade, writing in various different formats and styles. I've written formal nonfiction books, descriptive novels, humorous memoir chapters, and conversational but informative online articles (like this one!).

In short, I earn a living in part by writing (and revising) using strong verbs selected for each type of writing I work on. I hope you find the tips on verbs below useful! And if you want to skip straight to the verb list below, click here to see over 200 strong verbs.

Hemingway clung to a writing rule that said, “Use vigorous English.” In fact, Hemingway was more likely to use verbs than any other part of speech, far more than typical writing, according to LitCharts:

Hemingway's use of parts of speech.

But what are strong verbs? And how do you avoid weak ones?

In this post, you'll learn the three best techniques to find weak verbs in your writing and replace them with strong ones. We'll also look at a list of the strongest verbs for each type of writing, including the strongest verbs to use.

What are Strong Verbs?

Strong verbs, in a stylistic sense, are powerful verbs that are specific and vivid verbs. They are most often in active voice and communicate action precisely.

The Top 7 Strong Verbs

Here are the top 7 I found when I reviewed a couple of my favorite books. See if you agree and tell me in the comments. 

  • burst
  • claw
  • envelop
  • fumble
  • ooze
  • rachet
  • scrape

Think about the vivid and specific image each of these strong verbs conjures. Each one asserts precision.

It's true that writers will use descriptive verbs that best fit their character, story, and style, but it's interesting to note trends.

For example, Hemingway most often used verbs like: galloped, punched, lashed, and baited. Each of these verbs evokes a specific motion, as well as a tone. Consider how Hemingway's verbs stack up against weaker counterparts:

Table of Hemingway's verbs compared to weaker, less precise verbs. Examples: galloped versus hurried, punched versus hit, lash versus hit, bait versus bother

None of the weaker verbs are incorrect, but they don't pack the power of Hemingway's strong action verbs, especially for his story lines, characters, and style. These are verbs that are forward-moving and aggressive in tone. (Like his characters!)

Consider how those choices differ significantly than a few from Virginia Woolf's opening page of Mrs. Dalloway:

Table of Virginia Woolf's verbs, including: burst versus break, plunged versus dip, flapped versus wave, stiffened versus set, and perched versus sat

Notice how Woolf's choices create the vibrant, descriptive style that marks her experimental novel and its main character. Consider the difference between “perched” and “sat.” “Perched” suggests an image of a bird, balancing on a wire. Applied to people, it connotes an anxiousness or readiness to stand again. “Sat” is much less specific. 

The strongest verbs for your own writing will depend on a few things: your story, the main character,  the genre, and the style that is uniquely yours. How do you choose then? Let's look at three tips to edit out weak, boring verbs. 

How to Edit for Strong Verbs FAST

So how do you root out those weak verbs and revise them quickly? Here are a few tips. 

1. Search for Weak Verbs

All verbs can be strong if they're used in specific, detailed, and descriptive sentences.

The issue comes when verbs are overused, doing more work than they're intended for, watering down the writing. 

Here are some verbs that tend to weaken your writing:

  • is
  • was
  • am
  • were
  • being
  • are
  • get
  • got
  • have
  • had

Did you notice that most of these are “to be” verbs? That's because “to be” verbs are linking verbs or state of being verbs. Their purpose is to describe conditions.

For example, in the sentence “They are happy,” the verb “are” is used to describe the state of the subject. 

There's nothing particularly wrong with linking verbs. Writers who have a reputation for strong writing, like Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy, use linking verbs constantly.

The problem comes when you overuse them. Linking verbs tend to involve more telling vs. showing.

Strong verbs, on the other hand, are usually action verbs, like whack, said, ran, lassoed, and spit (see more in the list below). 

The most important thing is to use the best verb for the context, while emphasizing specific, important details.

Take a look at the following example early into Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls:

The young man, who was studying the country, took his glasses from the pocket of his faded, khaki flannel shirt, wiped the lenses with a handkerchief, screwed the eyepieces around until the boards of the mill showed suddenly clearly and he saw the wooden bench beside the door; the huge pile of sawdust that rose behind the open shed where the circular saw was, and a stretch of the flume that brought the logs down from the mountainside on the other bank of the stream.

I've highlighted all the verbs. You can see here that Hemingway does use the word “was,” but most of the verbs are action verbs, wiped, took, screwed, saw, etc. The result of this single sentence is that the audience pictures the scene with perfect clarity.

Here's another example from Naomi Novick's Deadly Education:

He was only a few steps from my desk chair, still hunched panting over the bubbling purplish smear of the soul-eater that was now steadily oozing into the narrow cracks between the floor tiles, the better to spread all over my room. The fading incandescence on his hands was illuminating his face, not an extraordinary face or anything: he had a big beaky nose that would maybe be dramatic one day when the rest of his face caught up, but for now wasjust too large, and his forehead was dripping sweat and plastered with his silver-grey hair that he hadn’t cut for three weeks too long.

Vivid right? You can see that again, she incorporates weaker verbs (was, had) into her writing, but the majority are highly descriptive action verbs like hunched, illuminating, spread, plastered, and dripping.

Don't be afraid of linking verbs, state verbs, or helping verbs, but emphasize action words to make your writing more powerful.

2. Remove Adverbs and Replace the Verbs to Make Them Stronger

Adverbs add more detail and qualifications to verbs or adjectives. You can spot them because they usually end in “-ly,” like the word “usually” in this sentence, or frequently, readily, happily, etc.

Adverbs get a bad rap from writers.

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” Stephen King said.

“Adverbs are dead to me. They cannot excite me,” said Mark Twain

“I was taught to distrust adjectives,” said Hemingway, “as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.”

Even Voltaire jumped in on the adverb dogpile, saying, “Adjectives are frequently the greatest enemy of the substantive.”

All of these writers, though, used adverbs when necessary. Still, the average writer uses them far more than they did.

Adverbs signal weak verbs. After all, why use two words, an adverb and a verb, when one strong verb can do.

Look at the following examples of adverbs with weak verbs replaced by stronger verbs:

  1. He ran quickly –> He sprinted
  2. She said loudly –> She shouted
  3. He ate hungrily –> He devoured his meal
  4. They talked quietly –> They whispered

Strive for simple, strong, clear language over padding your writing with more words. 

You don't need to completely remove adverbs from your writing. Hemingway himself used them frequently. But cultivating a healthy distrust of adverbs seems to be a sign of wisdom among writers.

3. Stop Hedging and “Eliminate Weasel Words”

Amazon's third tip for writing for employees is “Eliminate Weasel Words,” and that advice applies to verbs too.

Instead of “nearly all customers,” say, “89 percent of customers.”

Instead of “significantly better,” say, “a 43 percent improvement.”

Weasel words are a form of hedging.

Hedging allows you to avoid commitment by using qualifiers such as “probably,” “maybe,” “sometimes,” “often,” “nearly always,” “I think,” “It seems,” and so on.

Hedge words or phrases soften the impact of a statement or to reduce the level of commitment to the statement's accuracy.

By eliminating hedging, you're forced to strengthen all your language, including verbs.

What do you really think about something? Don't say, “I think.” Stand by it. A thing is or isn't. You don't think it is or believe it is. You stand by it.

If you write courageously with strength of opinion, your verbs grow stronger as well.

 

Beware the Thesaurus: Strong Verbs are Simple Verbs

I caveat this advice with the advice to beware thesauruses.

Strong writing is almost always simple writing. 

Writers who replace verbs like “was” and “get” with long, five-syllable verbs that mean the same thing as a simple, one-syllable verb don't actually communicate more clearly.

To prepare for this article, I studied the verb use in the first chapters of several books by my favorite authors, including Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Naomi Novik's Deadly Education.

Hemingway has a bigger reputation as a stylist and a “great” writer, but I found that Novik's verb choice was just as strong and even slightly more varied. 

Hemingway tended to use simpler, shorter verbs, though, often repeating verbs, whereas Novik's verbs were longer and often more varied.

I love both of these writers, but if you're measuring strength, simplicity will most often win.

In dialogue this is especially important. Writers sometimes try to find every synonym for the word, “said” to describe the exact timber and attitude of how a character is speaking.

This becomes a distraction from the dialogue itself. In dialogue, the words spoken should speak for themselves, not whatever synonym the writer has looked up for “said.” 

Writers should use simple speaker tags like “said” and “asked” as a rule, only varying that occasionally when the situation warrants it.

270+ Strong Verbs List

We've argued strong verbs are detailed, descriptive, action verbs, and below, I list over 200 strong verbs to make your writing better.

I compiled this list directly from the first chapters of some of my favorite books, already mentioned previously, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, and The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis.

This is a necessarily simplified list, taken only from the first chapters of those books.  There are thousands of strong verbs, usually action verbs, but these are a good start.

I've also sorted them alphabetically and put them into present tense.

  1. Accomplish
  2. Acquire
  3. Adjust
  4. Advise
  5. Aim
  6. Allow
  7. Analyze
  8. Answer
  9. Appear
  10. Apply
  11. Approach
  12. Argue
  13. Arm
  14. Arrest
  15. Arrive
  16. Assume
  17. Audition
  18. Avoid
  19. Back out
  20. Band
  21. Become
  22. Believe
  23. Bill
  24. Blink
  25. Block
  26. Bother
  27. Breathe
  28. Bring
  29. Build
  30. Burn
  31. Burst
  32. Buy
  33. Call
  34. Care
  35. Carry
  36. Catch
  37. Cave
  38. Change
  39. Charge
  40. Chase
  41. Check
  42. Claw
  43. Clean
  44. Clear
  45. Collect
  46. Collaborate
  47. Come
  48. Command
  49. Compare
  50. Conceive
  51. Consign
  52. Contain
  53. Count
  54. Cross
  55. Cultivate
  56. Cut
  57. Dance
  58. Decide
  59. Depend
  60. Determine
  61. Die
  62. Dig
  63. Dismiss
  64. Dismount
  65. Discover
  66. Dissolve
  67. Drink
  68. Drive
  69. Drop
  70. Drip
  71. Dump
  72. Eat
  73. Encourage
  74. Engage
  75. Enjoy
  76. Envelop
  77. Evaluate
  78. Expect
  79. Explain
  80. Expose
  81. Fail
  82. Fall
  83. Feign
  84. Feed
  85. Feel
  86. Figure out
  87. Fill
  88. Finish
  89. Flag
  90. Flip
  91. Fly
  92. Force
  93. Fool
  94. Fumble
  95. Gather
  96. Gas
  97. Give
  98. Go
  99. Grab
  100. Graduate
  101. Grill
  102. Grin
  103. Grow
  104. Guess
  105. Hand
  106. Happen
  107. Hear
  108. Help
  109. Hiccup
  110. Hire
  111. Hiss
  112. Hold
  113. Hunch
  114. Hunt
  115. Indicate
  116. Influence
  117. Install
  118. Intellectualize
  119. Interview
  120. Invent
  121. Jam
  122. Jerk
  123. Join
  124. Jolt
  125. Judge
  126. Keep
  127. Kill
  128. Knock
  129. Know
  130. Latch
  131. Lead
  132. Lean
  133. Leave
  134. Let
  135. Lie
  136. Lift
  137. Like
  138. Linger
  139. Live
  140. Load
  141. Look
  142. Love
  143. Lower
  144. Lull
  145. Make
  146. Manage
  147. Measure
  148. Meditate
  149. Miss
  150. Mislead
  151. Move
  152. Murder
  153. Mistrust
  154. Need
  155. Nod
  156. Notice
  157. Offer
  158. Operate
  159. Ooze
  160. Own
  161. Pack
  162. Pass
  163. Pay
  164. Penetrate
  165. Perform
  166. Pick
  167. Pick up
  168. Pin
  169. Place
  170. Plan
  171. Point
  172. Popularize
  173. Pray
  174. Predict
  175. Pretend
  176. Promise
  177. Pronounce
  178. Prove
  179. Protect
  180. Protest
  181. Pull
  182. Push
  183. Quit
  184. Ratchet
  185. Read
  186. Realize
  187. Receive
  188. Refer
  189. Rely
  190. Remember
  191. Render
  192. Repair
  193. Replace
  194. Resist
  195. Retire
  196. Revert
  197. Ride
  198. Rise
  199. Raze
  200. Rope
  201. Rot
  202. Run
  203. Sacrifice
  204. Sail
  205. Saddle
  206. Save
  207. Say
  208. Scrape
  209. Score
  210. Scoop
  211. Screw up
  212. See
  213. Seem
  214. Send
  215. Set
  216. Set out
  217. Settle
  218. Shake
  219. Shape
  220. Shove
  221. Show
  222. Shut
  223. Slaughter
  224. Sleep
  225. Slither
  226. Smile
  227. Sneak
  228. Sort
  229. Speak
  230. Spend
  231. Spit
  232. Spread
  233. Stand
  234. Start
  235. Stay
  236. Steal
  237. Stop
  238. Store
  239. Straighten
  240. Stride
  241. Struggle
  242. Stagger
  243. Suck
  244. Summon
  245. Swing
  246. Take
  247. Talk
  248. Tease
  249. Tell
  250. Test
  251. Think
  252. Throw
  253. Touch
  254. Track
  255. Transfer
  256. Travel
  257. Trigger
  258. Trust
  259. Turn
  260. Understand
  261. Undertake
  262. Unearth
  263. Use
  264. Vanish
  265. Walk
  266. Wander
  267. Wash
  268. Watch
  269. Wear
  270. Weigh
  271. Whack
  272. Whinny
  273. Whip
  274. Wonder
  275. Work
  276. Worry
  277. Write
  278. Yell
  279. Yank

The Best Way to Learn to Use Strong Verbs

The above tips will help get you started using strong verbs, but the best way to learn how to grow as a writer with your verbs is through reading.

But not just reading, studying the work of your favorite writers carefully and then trying to emulate it, especially in the genre you write in.

As Cormac McCarthy, who passed away recently, said, “The unfortunate truth is that books are made from books.”

If you want to grow as a writer, start with the books you love. Then adapt your style from there.

Which tip will help you use more strong verbs in your writing today? Let me know in the comments. 

PRACTICE

Choose one of the following three practice exercises:

1. Study the verb use in the first chapter of one of your favorite books. Write down all of the verbs the author uses. Roughly what percentage are action verbs versus linking verbs? What else do you notice about their verb choice?

2. Free write for fifteen minutes using only action verbs and avoiding all “to be” verbs and adverbs.

3. Edit a piece that you've written, replacing the majority of linking verbs with action verbs and adverbs with stronger verbs.

Share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here, and give feedback to a few other writers. 

 

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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