There aren’t a ton of true shortcuts when it comes to writing better prose. Improvement mostly comes with lots and lots of practice, long hours in revision, and reading as much as you can.
However, that isn’t to say there aren’t a few quick tips you can apply to instantly improve your prose—even if you’ll need to practice using them. One of these quick tips is to revolutionize the way you’re using your verbs.
In this article, we’re going to talk about weak verbs and strong verbs. We’ll cover what they are and why it matters, what weak and strong verbs can do, and how you can transform your weak verbs into strong verbs if necessary.
This guide to weak verbs covers:
- What are weak verbs?
- Weak verbs vs strong verbs
- How do you change a weak verb?
- What are examples of weak verbs?
What are weak verbs?
When I say a verb is ‘weak,’ what do I mean?
Before I tell you about the verbs we’ll be dealing with in this article, let’s talk grammar (it’ll be painless, I swear!).
Weak vs. strong verbs in grammar
Weak verbs (also known as regular verbs), grammatically, are verbs which end in -ed, -t, -or -d when they’re put into the past tense. Examples include walked, jogged, and blinked.
A strong verb, in the grammatical sense, changes the vowel in the present tense form of the word when it’s put into past tense. Examples of this include ran, thought, and stood.
This grammatical meaning doesn’t have anything to do with how effective the verb is in whichever sentence it appears. A weak verb, grammatically, isn’t necessarily a better or worse verb to use than a strong verb. It’s just a way to delineate these types of verbs.
In this article, we’re talking about weak and strong verbs in a different way. When I say a verb is weak in this article, I mean that a verb isn’t as effective as it could be. In other words, it’s a poorer verb choice. A stronger verb, by contrast, is one that’s more effective, more evocative, or more descriptive.
So! Let’s talk about weak (or ineffective) verbs vs. strong (or effective) verbs.
Weak verbs vs strong verbs
There’s no hard and fast rule for deciding when a verb is weak or strong, so how can you pick them apart? Here are a few ways to tell whether you’re dealing with a weak or strong verb:
Strong verbs are more specific
A strong verb will be specific and evocative. It won’t make the reader fill in extra information to paint a more vivid picture—a strong verb will just paint that picture for the reader.
For example, if I write “John closed the door,” you don’t have a ton of information. You know John closed the door, but I haven’t indicated his mood or what else might be going on in the scene. ‘Closed’ here is a weak verb. If I wrote “John slammed the door,” we have a more clear picture of what’s going on. We get the idea that John is angry or upset.
Using a stronger verb gave us a more specific, detailed image of that scene.
Weak verbs tend to lead to wordiness
Because weak verbs don’t pull their weight, they force the author to make up for them. This will often result in authors adding lots of extra description or excessive punctuation to compensate for their weak verbs, when really they only need a stronger verb. Consider the following sentence:
John closed the door angrily and stomped away. “I hate you!”
‘Stomped’ is a pretty evocative verb, but it’s being deployed here because ‘closed’ isn’t pulling its weight. We wouldn’t need to tack on an extra clause to this sentence to suggest that John is angry if we used a stronger verb to begin with.
“John slammed the door. “I hate you!”
See how we get the same basic effect with fewer, more precise words?
Strong verbs aren’t necessarily big verbs
Weak verbs aren’t always short or simple verbs, and strong verbs aren’t always long and complicated verbs. Too much of either is a problem. Overloading your prose with multisyllabic verbs will make your prose feel tired and exhausting, while having a limited selection of short, simple verbs might make it feel two-dimensional.
Basically, you’ll have to take a look at the scene you’re writing and decide what sort of verb you need. In dialogue, for example, you almost never need anything other than “said.” A weak verb is probably best there. However, if you’re writing a dramatic chase sequence, you probably want to reach for something more evocative than “ran really fast.”
Weak verbs tend to require adverbs
A quick way to tell whether you’re using a weak verb is to check for adverbs. I’m not going to tell you that you’re not ever allowed to use adverbs, ever, but I am going to tell you that adverbs, more often than not, indicate a weak verb. Replacing the weak verb and the adverb with a stronger verb makes the prose crisper.
Let’s look at John again for another example:
John closed the door angrily.
Because ‘closed’ isn’t very evocative, we had to add ‘angrily’ to let the reader know what sort of mood is going on. Instead, though, we can swap out both the weak verb (closed) and the adverb (angrily):
John slammed the door.
Weak verbs tend to tell, not show
And, finally, a weak verb tends to tell the audience what’s going on instead of showing them.
Remember how adverbs have to let the reader know how the verb was meant to be used? This is what I mean. With a weak verb, you have to do more work explaining the overall vibe. A strong verb does it for you. Let’s look at a different example this time:
Sarah ran as fast as she could. She breathed heavily and looked into the treeline for a long time, hoping the attackers were gone.
We know what, technically, happened, but we don’t feel like we’re there. It feels like we’re being told about it from a friend instead of living it with Sarah. The weak verbs here are ‘ran,’ ‘breathed,’ and ‘looked.’ Let’s swap ‘em out.
Branches whipped Sarah’s legs and scratched her arms as she sprinted. Panting, she stared into the treeline, hoping the attackers were gone.
We could still use a little more transitioning between these two sentences, but see how just swapping out those verbs made it come to life?
How do you change a weak verb?
I’ve shown you a few examples of how swapping out weak verbs can look, but how do you apply this to your own writing? Let’s review:
Identify what you want to convey
Figure out what emotion you want to get across to your reader. Is this a desperate scene, a romantic scene, or is it lighthearted? Strong verbs carry strong images, so you don’t want to use something out of place for the mood you want to set. If characters are hanging out and having a nice time, for example, and you’re not trying to make the scene feel ominous, you might say someone was “relaxing” in the background instead of “lurking.”
Consult a thesaurus
If you have a verb which you believe requires the adverb to communicate the feeling behind it, check out a thesaurus. Search for the weak verb you’re using and see what sorts of synonyms might work instead. You don’t want anything too archaic or flowery, but ‘screamed’ is far different than ‘said,’ and one might do a much better job than the other in your scene.
Consulting a thesaurus is also handy if you find yourself reaching for the same handful of strong verbs. Plenty of writers struggle with this, especially during their first draft—they hit Control + F and search for ‘jerked’ or ‘pulled’ and find that it appears two hundred times.
Strong verbs are only evocative if they aren’t overused. If there’s a verb you’re overusing, even a strong one, a thesaurus can help you find a different way to word that same action.
Cut your adverbs
Like I said before, finding an adverb will almost always result in finding a weak verb. Cut as many of them as you can. If you catch yourself tacking on an adverb, ask yourself whether the sentence gets its meaning across without it. Do we have a clear understanding of the action without it? If so, get rid of it. Do we absolutely need it to know how a character is feeling or how the action is being performed? If so, cut it, and replace the adverb and the weak verb with a stronger verb.
The only time you really need an adverb is when the alternative would be to reword the sentence such that it would become lengthy and wordy. If an adverb is truly the shortest and more effective way to get your point across, so be it. But triple-check first.
What are examples of weak verbs?
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s run through a few more examples of swapping a weak verb for a stronger one.
“He worked really hard making dinner.”
The phrase ‘really hard’ here is being used to modify ‘worked,’ because ‘worked’ isn’t doing much. We want to get across that this character has worked very hard, and we need a verb that does a better job getting that across.
“He toiled over dinner.”
“She felt happy when she walked to the store.”
Here, we’re just not getting a lot of information. Felt is acting as a filter phrase here, so we’re being told how she feels instead of putting it together for ourselves. Walked is a little boring, but it might not be a problem if we polish up the first part of the sentence.
“Her heart lightened the further she got from the house. She read and re-read the recipe she’d brought with her, unable to help herself from thinking ahead to the delicious pie she’d make later.”
“She sat on a bench outside the theater while the rest of the movie played.”
Depending on the context, this isn’t strictly problematic, but we can do a little more here. ‘Sat’ feels flat, and if we pick a stronger verb, we might be able to word the whole sentence more concisely.
“She waited outside the theater for the movie to end.”