As a travel writer — any kind of writer, in fact — verbs are one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal. Vivid verbs, that is. Verbs that describe an action or offer a visual image.
I could rattle off a list of habits the best writers employ when they write. But using strong verbs is arguably the most important — the one thing that can immediately elevate your writing from adequate to superior.
That’s because strong verbs help you paint compelling, irresistible pictures for your readers. And they help you to do it without employing so many of those nasty adjectives that strangle your sentences.
Apply these three techniques to every sentence you write, and editors will take notice.
Three Ways to Sniff Out Better Verbs
1.) Banish the verb “to be” (That means: is, am, are, was, and were.) “To be” is one of the weakest verbs in the English language. For stronger, more descriptive sentences, replace “to be” with verbs that do more. Eliminate “to be,” and your writing becomes more vibrant, more interesting, and more persuasive.
Let me illustrate: The boy was at the back of the room.
Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with that sentence. But replace the “was” with a verb that does more, and all of a sudden your reader sees better the “picture” you mean to paint.
Instead, try: The boy slouched. The boy swayed. The boy snored.
2.) Some verbs, while better than “to be,” are nevertheless weak. When you use them, you find you must offer crutches — other words to help explain what your verb means. Replace these weak verbs with stronger ones.
For example: The man walked with a limp.
Instead, try: The man limped.
For example: The waves beat incessantly against the shore.
Instead, try: The waves pummeled the shore.
For example: Amanda asked personal questions, looking for details about the divorce, the scar on Tom’s cheek, my income.
Instead, try: Amanda snooped for details about the divorce, the scar on Tom’s cheek, my income.
3.) Newspaper sports pages offer fertile ground for harvesting strong verbs you can use in your own writing. (This suggestion comes from Patricia T. O’Conner in “Words Fail Me.”) Makes sense, really. Sports writers describe the same thing again and again, so they’re forced to come up with new and better ways to do it. I skimmed a recent Chicago Tribune sports section and scribbled down some verbs that might come in handy: clarified, tossed, traipse, settled, compensated, lofted
You should do the same. Read the sports pages every so often and take note of the verbs that strike your fancy.
Three Examples to Inspire You
Before you rush off to cast out all the weak verbs in that last article you wrote, take a moment to read the three short passages I’ve included below.
These sentences are downright inspired. You, too, can write like this. The secret, remember, is in the verbs.
“Unlike the big gun behemoths that slugged it out with Japanese warships during World War II or belched Volkswagen-sized shells during the Korean War, the Navy’s newest dreadnought would lurk safely off a hostile shore partly submerged to avoid detection and rain 500 or more precision guided missiles on enemy tanks, advancing troops or other targets.” — New York Times, September 3, 1995, p. Y 11
“Night came on. The music, blaring from competing cassette players, reached distorted levels. Several people started dancing in the aisles, their sinuous arms swirling in the cloud of blue smoke. The ferromozas played matchmaker, pulling the foreigners to their feet and handing them over to dancing girls. One of the Englishmen, giddy with the sensuality of the moment, tumbled mid-merengue into the arms of an olive-eyed Cubana, while the ferromozas cheered and clapped.” — “A Cup of Cuban Coffee,” The Best American Travel Writing 2003, p. 25.
“It was, as they say in these parts, something of a ‘stout day.’ The sun shone in all its glory, but the wind blew fierce, the swells rolled high, and the Osprey was not so much slicing through the waves as roller-coastering over them with considerable splash and spray. Most of the 40 or so passengers, including a man with a fidgety rooster (its legs and beak were bound with cord) and another man with three big wax-board cartons filled with cheep-cheeping baby chicks, were hunkered down in the air-conditioned main cabin, where a goodly number of folks were already drinking Guinness. It was, after all, eight o’clock in the morning.” — “Chasing Chicks… and other true tales of ferry-hopping in the southern Caribbean,” Islands, July/August 2003, p.42.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]