Type ‘writing tips’ or anything similar into Google and you’ll get all sorts of advice on what to do, what not to do, and how to do things better than you currently are. You’ll hear a lot about why adverbs are bad, why ‘was’ is evil, why passive voice is best avoided, and a whole host of other tips. Most of it is good advice. What no one seems to be saying, yet is something I’ve found to be one of the most important aspects of good writing, is this: choosing the correct verb can be the difference between a story people can’t put down and a story no one wants to pick up.
So, what does the ‘correct’ verb mean? The correct verb is the one which best-describes the specific action your character is performing. It’s as simple as that. So, who gets to decide what ‘correct’ is? You do, obviously! It’s your story. You’re the writer, so you’re the one who can see the character in your mind. You’re the one who has the image of the character performing the specific action which you use words to describe.
‘to move’ is the least-specific verb in the English language
All verbs, other than those that describe thoughts, are ways of describing movement. Therefore, ‘to move’ is the least-specific verb in the English language. It covers literally everything from walking to running, from eating to spitting, from crawling backwards to piloting a helicopter. So, saying John moved towards the door doesn’t actually tell us anything other than ‘John was at Point A, and now, somehow, he’s at Point B’. The problem here is that we don’t know how John moved from A to B. He probably walked, but we can’t be certain of that. Maybe John only has one leg, so he had to hop. Maybe John isn’t a person at all, but is a remote-controlled car, so he rolled from A to B. The point is, the author used the non-specific, non-descriptive verb ‘to move’, which tells us next to nothing.
John walked towards the door.
Now we’re getting somewhere! John walked. He didn’t run. He didn’t do cartwheels. He walked. At this point, it’s probably safe to assume that John isn’t a remote-controlled car, or a fishbowl on a skateboard, or some other nonsense. But we’re still not specific enough. John walked, but how did he walk? Did he stroll, saunter, march, charge, amble, tiptoe, limp, shuffle? Take a minute and see how many other ways of walking you can think of. There are hundreds, which leads us back into non-specific territory.
General verbs tell. Specific verbs show
This introduces another distinction between verbs: verbs of telling, and verbs of showing. John walked: this tells us he was at Point A, and he walked to Point B, but it doesn’t describe his activity any further than that. However, if he strolled, we can infer that John was in no hurry. Nothing was wrong. He had no particular urgency or need to rush. But what about: John charged towards the door. Semantically, both sentences are the same; John walked, but they have radically different meanings. If John charged towards the door, we understand he was in a rush. His actions displayed an urgency, a need to accomplish whatever he needed to do as quickly as possible. All we did was dig down into the ‘walk’ category, and choose a more specific, more descriptive verb. Suddenly, our text is imbued with added meaning, without using even one extra word, and without telling the reader ‘John was in a hurry’. The reader already knows this based on the verb we chose, which described John’s actions more specifically than ‘walked’ ever could.
Consider the following:
The boy looked at the girl. The girl looked back.
The boy stared at the girl. The girl glared back.
The boy winked at the girl. The girl gazed back.
All of these sentences mean the same thing, and yet, they don’t. The verbs we choose can radically alter the reader’s understanding of the character’s actions, and the motivations behind them.
Final thought: if you commonly use the following verbs, you’re doing it wrong! Move, walk, run, look. These verbs, and others like them, are more like the titles of categories than descriptions of specific actions. Dig down into those categories and choose something more descriptive and more specific. Your readers will thank you!
The Importance of Verb-Choice