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.

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