Monday, July 28, 2008

Virtual Workshop: Verbs Rules, Adjectives Drool

If you ask the average person how to describe something, they are likely to use adjectives and adverbs. But in writing, especially in poetry, but also in prose, adjectives and adverbs weigh down the read. The more modified a noun or verb is, the less powerful.

It's easiest to see this with an example:

Lilly ran slowly. The heavy, cold rain had soaked through her now sodden shirt.

It's serviceable writing. We can visualize the scene, but it feels like obvious narration, as if a camera's eye is describing events. In two sentences, we have 1 adverb, 3 adjectives, and 2 verbs. Let's play with some stronger verbs and see what happens.

Lilly slogged through rain slick streets. She shivered, her shirt plastered to her skin.

In the second example, we omitted the adverb and replaced it (and its weak verb 'ran') with one strong verb: slogged. We use slick--which can be both a noun and a verb--as an adjective as in 'rain slick' to modify streets. In the second sentence, we have 2 strong verbs: shivered and plastered and no adjectives at all.

The second example also has more emotion and atmosphere than the first. That's because strong verbs carry nuance and emotion better than weaker verbs. Strong verbs are descriptive on their own without the need for additional modification.

Now, if we change the verbs, we can change the emotion.

Lilly sprinted through rain sweetened air. She welcomed the caress of shirt against skin.

Now we have a different atmosphere with sprinted and welcomed. Caress, both a verb and a noun, is used as a descriptive noun here to carry emotion. Sweetened, a verb, is used here as an adjective paired with rain and again conveys a positive mood.

In prose, you have at least some wiggle room to use flatter language. In a 300 page novel, a few adverbs and adjectives won't stand out too much, but in a brief poem in which every word must carry its weight? Be ruthless. Strip out those adverbs. Prune the adjectives.

Let's take a look at a classic poem. Here is one of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets. He knew a thing or two about strong verbs.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

I quickly went through the piece and highlighted the verbs in bold and the adjectives in italics. Notice there are no adverbs here. Most of the verbs are highly descriptive, either alone or paired with the nouns that they modify. There is far more bold than italics in this highly descriptive poem. There are very few adjectives at all.

One interesting note: Shakespeare uses the gerund form of several verbs as adjectives: wandering bark, bending sickle. It adds an unexpected note to the nouns these gerunds modify. If you add the fact that he was working in a rigid rhyme and meter scheme, you begin to understand Shakespeare's genius.

Take a look through your current WIP and find a section with adverbs or adjectives in it. In the comments section, share a few sentences of the original and how you might rewrite them using strong verbs.


Be ruthless.

Strip out adverbs.

Prune adjectives.


  1. Quibble. "In the second sentence, we have 2 strong verbs: shivered and plastered and no adjectives at all." Actually, "her" is an adjective.

    Ow. No shoving!

  2. ROFL, Julie. Yes, 'her' does modify the shirt, but I didn't want to deconstruct the rules of grammar to that level. :) And changing it to 'the shirt' would have given it a robotic feel. If I were writing a poem about Lilly in the rain, I might even have omitted both 'hers' and gone with 'shirt plasters skin'.

    Thanks for stopping by! Like your shiny new domain, by the way.

  3. I found your site through the Paperback Writer's week of workshops. Thank you for contributing to the week of learning. Your examples were helpful and I know i'll be able to spot weak words better now!

    Have a great day,

  4. This topic is very beneficial for me. I tend to write lean in the first draft - mostly action with plain words and plenty of adjectives and adverbs to get the feeling of the scene down. When I revise I try to punch up the verbs and nouns and get rid of those weak words. Thank you for the lesson. I'm looking forward to the remainder of the week!

  5. This is an excellent idea for a workshop. When I took a college-level introduction to writing poetry, it shocked me how much I depended on adverbs. Since that class, I've fought to keep my writing lean and specific.

    Your week of workshops will be a great review!

  6. I can use a little help in this area. The way you described the differences in the words helps me wrap my mind around the concept better.

    Can't wait for me.

  7. okay here goes, the original prose:

    The drills went on for an hour, with a couple of water breaks in between. My chest was sweaty and itchy under the chest protector, and my legs were wobbly by the time the tryout ended.

    And strengthened (I hope):
    The drills zipped by in an hour, with two water breaks. Sweat drenched my t-shirt under the chest protector, and I skated off the ice on jello legs at the end of the tryout.

  8. sbarret--nice job on the revision. Yes--definitely sharper. Zipped and jello-legs are quite nice. I did like the sensation of itchiness beneath the chest protector, so maybe you can work that back in somehow.

    Happy to see that folks are finding this useful. Stay tuned for more poetry-goodness.


  9. Without a doubt, one of the best, tightest, clearest explanations of a piece of advice I've heard a million times.

    I'm going on vacation later today, but I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your posts when I return.

    Great workshop idea!

  10. shannon--glad you're finding it useful. Poetry is my first writing love and I think the tools of good poetry really translate well to writing fiction.

    cheryl--It's good to get it down, lean or not in that first draft. I think it's easier to make a weak word stronger than to have a blank page to wrestle with!

    belinda--yeah, those pesky adverbs. They breed like rabbits. :)

    jamal--thank you for stopping by--glad you have found this useful.

    gillian--thank you very much! Enjoy your vacation.