Shape Up Flabby Writing with Stronger Words

by Susan Bearman

Two women in swimsuits flexing muslces

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

Choosing the right words can make the difference between flat, tedious writing and writing that sings a clear, sweet song.

Adjectives and adverbs are fine in moderation, but strong verbs will propel your writing forward and engage your reader in a sensory adventure.

Flowery or distracting language can be just as risky, taking the reader right out of the story. When you feel an overwhelming need to spice up your writing with more adjectives or adverbs, take a closer look at your verbs.

Show, Don’t Tell

Every writer knows this mantra, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly what that means. The verb “to be” and all its iterations often takes a writer down the “telling” path. Here’s a blatant example:

“The mountain was big.”—How big? Bigger than a car? A house?

I’m telling you something here about a mountain, but not showing you anything at all. Here’s how a couple of strong verbs can show how big that mountain really is:

“Mt. Rainier thrusts its stony, snow-capped peak more than 14,000 feet into the brilliant blue skies of western Washington, where it reigns as the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.”

One more:

“The movie was great.”—Really? You wouldn’t know it from that sentence. How about:

“The new indie film struck a chord with the audience, who gasped in horror over the grisly murder, but laughed uproariously when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”

But wait, there’s as an adverb in that sentence: uproariously. True, but I believe this is one of those instances when replacing the verb “to laugh” with a synonym would only distract the reader, rather than enhance the sentence. See what you think.

“The new indie film struck a chord with the audience, who gasped in horror over the grisly murder, but …

  • guffawed when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”
  • … snickered when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”
  • tittered when the murderer slipped on a bloody banana peel.”

In each of these examples, I found the replacement verb distracting, so I stuck with my original verb: “to laugh”. The problem was that just “laughing” didn’t seem to provide enough of a contrast to gasping in horror, so I added “uproariously” to heighten the difference.

Adverbs and adjectives are not bad in and of themselves. Words are a writer’s palette and they come in all colors, but writers should choose carefully, not rely on the default settings.

“To write” is a verb—an action word—so act with intention when you write.

Context Matters

Finding the right word is often dependent on context. A flabby verb will work almost anywhere, but a strong verb fits best within a particular context. For example, let’s look at two sentences using the common (flabby) verb “went”:

  • The racehorse went around the track three times.
  • The airplane went slowly across the tarmac.

While the word “went” works just as well (or poorly) in each of these sentences, stronger, more precise verbs will bring them to life and paint completely different pictures.

  • The racehorse trotted around the track three times.
  • The racehorse galloped around the track three times.
  • The racehorse limped around the track three times.

“Trotted”, “galloped”, and “limped” are all fine synonyms for “went” in this sentence, and each one delivers a different image of our horse. None of these verbs, however, can replace “went” in our second sentence, but a more precise verb choice, such as “inched” or “rolled”, will give us a better picture of how that plane moved on the tarmac.

I recently gave this same exercise to some students, asking them to replace the word “went” in the following 10 sentences. In parentheses, I have shown their suggestions. We then voted on the best changes.

Which verb would you have chosen, or do you have an even better suggestion?

  1. The jockey nearly flew off his saddle as the horse went (raced, ran, bolted, galloped) for the finish line.
  2. The ghost faded before their eyes as he went (floated, disappeared, evaporated, glided) through the closed door.
  3. The old jalopy went (zigzagged, lumbered, hiccoughed, bumbled) down the street, belching little clouds of black smoke in its wake.
  4. Even with a fever of 104°, the dedicated nurse  went (dragged herself, made it, schlepped, trudged) to the hospital.
  5. “You’re going to miss my exit!” shouted the passenger, as the taxi driver made a hard right and went (careened, rolled, skidded, screeched) onto the ramp.
  6. The passengers heaved a collective sigh of relief as the airplane went (lifted, rose, glided, elevated) silently up into the sky.
  7. After months of suffering, the cancer patient went (passed away, perished, died, expired) quietly in his sleep.
  8. While the grownups around him carefully avoided the puddles, the little boy went (jumped, skipped, splashed, pranced) right through them.
  9. “I’m not tired and I don’t want to go to bed!” Tommy protested as he went (stomped, scrambled, trudged, stumbled) up the stairs.
  10. Batman went (dove, stormed, swung, soared) into action, taking the bad guys by surprise.

One of my favorite classroom exercises is to bring in a poster board titled “Bad Words”, with the list of offending words draped in a piece of black tissue paper. I tell the class to think (not say) the worst word they can think of. This always elicits lots of giggling and then surprise when I reveal my list of “bad words”:

bad
nice
fun
awesome
cool
interesting
was
be
went
good
unique
very
some
am
is
were
been
so

But, as George Carlin once noted, there aren’t really any bad words. There are only poor choices. In any given context, a word can be imprecise, flabby, flowery, boring, or perfect. It’s up to you, the writer, to choose the right ones.

{ 29 comments }

Stephanie Scott April 10, 2012 at 1:49 am

Why stick with one adverb when two will do! Just kidding. I tend to use adverbs sparingly (see what I did there?) but I probably rely too much on adjectives. I try to pare down in editing to precise descriptors and not too many, even if they are funny and amuse me ;)

A writing book I read said to describe using verbs and nouns. It can be a real challenge, so I try it first, and if it feels clunky I throw in some of the dreaded “A’s.”

Thanks for a great post!
Read Stephanie Scott´s last article ..Blogging A to Z: Hart of Dixie

Susan Bearman April 10, 2012 at 7:05 am

Ah, the dreaded “A’s”. Perhaps that should have been the title for this post. I think using verbs and nouns is a harder, but sometimes more satisfying way to create descriptions. You’re right that it is better to use the dreaded “A’s” than end up with clunky sentences. Thanks for your comments.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Zoe McKnight April 10, 2012 at 6:44 am

So true. It’s totally worth it to take a moment and think of a descriptive, yet, common word to really convey the scene. I hate it when you can tell that a writer searched a thesaurus for a fancy word to replace a verb, but the word escapes the average reader’s comprehension so it defeats the purpose. Great article.

Susan Bearman April 10, 2012 at 7:06 am

Thanks Zoe. I love the fancy words, too (writers are like that), but I think you need to find the write balance and edit yourself.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Carl D'Agostino April 10, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Often forget how strong verbs can be as effective and even more effective that adj and adv. Another way to go which I really appreciate is use of creative similes and metaphors vs mere adj and adv.
Read Carl D’Agostino´s last article ..The buffalo Nickel by Carl D’Agostino

Susan Bearman April 10, 2012 at 10:19 pm

Good point, Carl. Did you read Sarah Baughman’s great Write It Sideways piece on metaphors?
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Britton Minor April 10, 2012 at 11:21 pm

This is great stuff – um, I mean: Your advice rocks!
I like the way you wrote this – um, I mean: I’m drooling over your suggestions.
You are nice – um, I mean: I’m overjoyed that you shared such helpful advice.
Let’s do this again -um, I mean, I’ll roam here again soon, to ingest more of your tasty advice..
Read Britton Minor´s last article ..Ding-dong Ditch

Susan Bearman April 11, 2012 at 5:54 am

Hey, Britton. I see what you did there ;). Nice revisions.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Barbara Terao April 11, 2012 at 1:02 am

I will use these tips to edit my essays. Thanks, Susan! You may have been exaggerating to make a point (haha), or you may have different information than I do, but I heard that Mt. Whitney in California is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. So I checked Wikipedia. Mt. Ranier is mighty close but not the tallest. Consider me your nit-picker of the day, and feel free to return the favor!

Susan Bearman April 11, 2012 at 5:57 am

Barb, you’re right, of course. Seems Mt. Rainier isn’t even a close second. Should have done a little fact checking for my example. Lucky to have you. Or maybe it was a secret code I was sending to my contact in Washington. I’ll never tell.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Linda Gartz April 11, 2012 at 2:26 am

All good reminders. I like to jot down the most vivid words, phrases and metaphors as I read a book with glorious language. They are reminders of how these writers THOUGHT about a moment, a scene, an emotion — and can inspire new ways of thinking for me. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
Oh, and speaking of Mt. Rainier, my brothers live in Seattle so I’ve traveled there often. Mt. Rainier is not often visible from Seattle due to the rainy climate. Those days when you might or might now see it, claimed this wonderful expression from my then sister-in-law, “I love it here when Mt. Rainier is lurking in the clouds.” So much more powerful than “hiding.” Don’t you think?
Read Linda Gartz´s last article ..Not a drop of water

Susan Bearman April 11, 2012 at 6:19 am

Linda, lurk is a wonderful verb. We were lucky when we visited Mt. Rainier. The peak was just as described here, thrusting into brilliant blue skies, not lurking in the clouds. (Although it does not reign as the tallest peak in the lower 48, as it turns out. Thanks to Barb for the correction.)
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Ann Evans April 11, 2012 at 5:17 am

Thank you. I have shamelessly stolen these words, if you don’t mind, and will use them in my class tomorrow. I don’t know about draping it in black — maybe I’ll just not show it to them until they’ve come up with their own words.

Linda Gartz’s posting is also a reminder that I should always make note of the good language as well as the bad words.
Read Ann Evans´s last article ..Paying the Piper – the failure of American high schools

Susan Bearman April 11, 2012 at 6:21 am

Ann, I’d love to hear how your class goes. I’ve used it from 3rd grade through adults, and it almost always gets giggles. If they’re kids, I warn you to keep them from giving their choices aloud, unless you want to play censor or answer a lot of parental questions. Good luck.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Susan Bearman April 11, 2012 at 6:42 am

Found this today—writing advice from C.S. Lewis—that addresses this same topic with eloquence.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Sarah Baughman April 12, 2012 at 4:30 am

Great post with very practical advice! (Actually, I should probably find a better word than “great” to describe it… :) ) I like the exercise you used with your students– it’s helpful to give such concrete suggestions. Powerful words are easy to take for granted and students might not recognize why one paragraph written with such strong descriptive language reads better than another until they’re given the chance to isolate specific words.
Read Sarah Baughman´s last article ..Guest Post: Two Hours To Write!

Susan Bearman April 14, 2012 at 3:29 am

Thanks, Sarah. I love this exercise too. It gets even the most reluctant writers engaged.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

patientdreamer April 12, 2012 at 7:46 pm

This was a great post. Loved the examples, show instead of tell always ‘gets’ me.
Thankyou, I am going to print this out and keep for referrence when editing my work.
Thankyou.
Read patientdreamer´s last article ..“A walk with me in Aotearoa” part 6

Susan Bearman April 14, 2012 at 3:29 am

I love when people print out my posts! It gives me a little thrill. I hope it continues to help and inspire you.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Lori Mozdzierz April 12, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Thanks, Coach Susanna, for whipping our verb bods into shape with this superb post!

The recent “went” exercise you gave your students is thought provoking.
(1) bolted, made a mad dash
(2) floated, drifted
(3) bumbled [Love the alliteration this brings to the line.]
(4) trudged [LOL! At temp of 104, that nurse better be coming in to be a patient ;D]
(5) veered
(6) rose
(7) died
(8) bounced, pounced
(9) stormed
(10) soared

Susan Bearman April 14, 2012 at 3:33 am

Lori, you were the only one brave enough to take the challenge. “Veered” is great for #5; it’s a strong, descriptive word that adds meaning and context to the sentence.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Kidane Woldeyesus April 12, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Thanks for the useful tips on the use of strong words. As English is my second language, your advice is practical.

Susan Bearman April 14, 2012 at 3:34 am

Kidane, I think you are so brave for writing in a second language. Good luck and I’m glad I was able to help. English is a tough language to use, even for native speakers.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Lisa April 14, 2012 at 2:57 am

Thanks for the fun and useful article (I now plan on working “guffawed” into something, don’t know what yet, but SOMETHING–great word!).

It may be antiquated, but I still reference good ole Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” periodically: write with nouns and verbs, avoid fancy words, avoid the use of qualifiers, etc, etc. We all know, rules are made to be broken, but I find that these strict usage guidelines help me focus on creating a good story without getting lost in the flowery language that can be oh so fun to get lost in (as a writer, but NOT as a reader).
Read Lisa´s last article ..It’s Official: I’m an Immigrant (unless you’re the UK Border Patrol, in which case, just kidding)

Susan Bearman April 14, 2012 at 3:35 am

Lisa, let us know when you find a good home for guffawed. It is such a funny word. And I agree, you can never go wrong with Strunk and White.
Read Susan Bearman´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Sharon Settle April 15, 2012 at 8:43 am

George Carlin is the perfect person to mention in this article. I often watch video clips of his shows online when I am in need of some word power. He was a master at engaging an audience with the power of string together words. He loved words and made us love them too.
Read Sharon Settle´s last article ..Break Out Those Characters

Susan @ 2KoP April 15, 2012 at 9:34 am

Sharon, I loved the way George played with words. As you say, he was a master.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Wordless Wednesday #5: Lacy?

Safae November 21, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Awesome photos! My fvraoite is the photo of your little one’s feet dangling from the chair. Priceless.I’d love for you to come by and link your WW post up on my linky when you get a chance. See you soon! Have a great day.Kristi, Live and Love…Out Loud@TweetingMama

Jason May 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm

This is definitely a helpful piece. And the exercise replacing ‘went’ with another verb was actually pretty fun. But I’m kind of a nerd that way, I guess.
Read Jason´s last article ..Realization

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