Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Most writers who have been working at the craft for any length of time know that verb choice can make the difference between bland writing and standout writing. I recently read the novel Longbourne and loved so much about it but especially Jo Baker’s verbs. Her novel showcases how vivid verbs transform your writing.
Early on in the book, Baker depicts the servants in this regency novel as they consume their supper, a souse or head cheese–meat jelly made from an animal’s head.The head of the servants, Mrs. Hill, has just told Sarah she has made an incorrect observation, and Sarah dislikes souse.
Note how much is conveyed via the verbs:
“…Sarah poked at the pickled brawn; Polly, feeling this to be a victory, shovelled hers up into a grin. Mr. Hill returned his baleful gaze to his plate….Mr. Hill scraped the jelly up to his mouth, his jaw swinging back and forth like a cow’s, to make best use of his few teeth….Sarah cut off a piece of souse, smeared it with mustard, and then horseradish, then blobbed it with black butter, spiked a slice of pickled walnut, and placed the lot cautiously between her lips.”
“She grabbed the old pelisse that hung by the back door, and ducked out into the peppery-cold morning. Pulling on the coat, her fingers fumbling with the frogging, she strode out of the yard and across the paddock, the frosted grass crunching and the rime kicking back up over her toecaps. She slipped through the side gate and turned up the lane; birds hopped and peeped in the hedgerows. She ducked into blue-black woods, and then back out into the starry morning. The sleeves hung low over her hands; she tugged up the collar and dipped her face into it; the old velvet smelt musty. She came to where the lane crested the hill, and met the drovers’ road.”
None of these verbs is unusual or little used. Yet, blended together in a paragraph, each contributes to the story in a lovely and vivid way.
The same concentrated effort to find just-right verbs applies to nonfiction as well.
Take a look at a description of a cell in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:
“Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg: It has a white (the cytoplasm) that’s full of water and proteins to keep it fed, and a yolk (the nucleus) that holds all the genetic information that makes you you. The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street. It’s crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell. All the while, little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7, cranking out sugars, fats, proteins, and energy to keep the whole thing running and feed the nucleus–the brains of the operation.”
Verbs kick up the action, the reader’s engagement, and make reading a pleasure.
What techniques do you use to make sure your verbs are heavy lifters?
Writers: Are your verbs working as hard as they should? Click to tweet.
Writing: It’s about verbs. Click to tweet.