Oh, Susanna! What Verbs Should I Avoid And Why?

Hey, Everyone!

What an exciting day it is!

It’s time for . . .

(cue dramatic soap opera theme music 🙂 )

. . . the long-awaited return of Oh, Susanna! (your picture book questions answered!)

Today’s question comes to us from BoldWriter who wonders:

In writing picture books strong verbs are a must. My question is this,
‘What are the most common verbs to avoid using, if possible, and why?’

BoldWriter, I’m so glad you asked!

As writers, it is our goal to express ourselves with the strongest, most articulate, most evocative language we can muster.  We use our words to bring stories to life for our readers.  In addition, as writers of picture books, our word count is extremely limited and we never want to use two or three words where one will do… and do a better job!

We’ve probably all seen those blog posts or articles that instruct us on The 5 Verbs To Avoid At All Costs! or how to Make Your Story Jump Off The Page By Eliminating These Action-Sucking Verbs!

It’s tempting to try to come up with a list.  It would be so simple, wouldn’t it, if we had a list of No-No Verbs that we could just search our documents for and remove, thereby turning our stories into perfect gems of literary genius?! 🙂

But it isn’t quite that simple.  (It never is with writing 🙂 )  While there are a few verbs you want to try to avoid when you can, it’s more an overall question of choosing the right word in every instance throughout your story – not just verbs, but nouns and the very judicious sprinkling of adjectives and adverbs we use where necessary and appropriate.  Every word has to earn its place in your picture book manuscript.  As George Carlin said, “There are no such things as bad words.  Only poor choices.” 🙂

So while I can’t necessarily give you a be-all-and-end-all list of verbs to avoid, there are a few verbs that belong on the Use-With-Caution list for one reason or another:

CAUTION! (1)

to be (am, is, was, were, etc.)
to do (does, did)
to go (go, went)
to have (has, had)
to seem
to feel
to think
to believe
to know

Others to use carefully include:

to get
to make
to let
to put

I don’t imagine this is an exhaustive list, but it names the majority of the main culprits.  (Readers, if there are others that leap to mind, please share them in the comments!)

The potential pitfall of most of the verbs on this list is that they are weak and/or vague.  They lure you into using modifiers (a word, phrase, or clause which functions as an adjective or adverb to describe a word or make its meaning more specific) when you’d be better off choosing a stronger more descriptive verb to begin with.

A weak verb will fit almost anywhere because it’s nonspecific.  A strong verb uses context to be the best verb for that spot.

Why say I went when you could say:

I skipped
I strolled
I dashed
I wandered
I galloped
I biked
I tiptoed
etc…?

Any of the alternate choices is stronger, clearer and more active, and conveys more information.  In addition, each of the alternate choices indicate very different things occurring in the story – someone who is wandering is a different kind of character, or is in a different situation, than someone who is galloping.  The alternate choices rely on context.

The verb to be has added dangers.

  1. It may take you down the “telling” path (you know, Show’s arch nemesis 🙂 ) and invite you to use weak descriptors like “nice” and “great” or vague descriptors like “big”.  Let’s look at an example:
    The building was big.
    Well, how big?  We’re being told something but not shown.  Is it bigger than a car?bigger than a house?  bigger than a mountain?
    The verb to be has led us astray! 🙂
    A better way to say it would be:
    The building thrust its peak into the clouds.
    Thrust is a stronger verb than was and used in conjunction with the clouds allows us to envision how big the building is.  It also conveys a sense of action.
  2. It may inadvertently set you up for passivity.  For example:
    Lucie and Lily were looked on with disgust after they ate a mustard sundae.
    “Were looked on” is passive – the action is being done to the characters instead of the characters doing the action.  Who is looking on Lucie and Lily with disgust and why should we care?  You’d be better off with something like:
    The whole first grade avoided Lucie and Lily after the mustard sundae episode.  “You guys are disgusting!”

The verbs to feel, to think, to believe, to seem, and to know are in a slightly different category.  They create unnecessary distance and weaker forms of expression.  For example:

Joe thought the goblin smelled like toe jam.

Does the goblin smell like toe jam or doesn’t he?

If he does, it would be a stronger statement to simply say: The goblin smelled like toe jam.  If he doesn’t, there’s no reason to bring it up at all! (I mean really, why would you bring up toe jam if you didn’t have to? 🙂 )

Most times if you find you’ve used think, know, believe, seem, or feel, you can simply cut them to make your sentence stronger and more active.

Choosing strong verbs and nouns also has the advantage of allowing you to avoid flowery or overly descriptive language which a) runs up your word count, b) slows the pace of your story, c) can distract from the action, and d) can potentially confuse picture book aged readers.

All verbs, however, even those on the caution list,  are useful and have their place, and in some cases are the best choice when you want to stay simple and direct.

For example:

Phyllis was not like the other groundhogs.

Yes, I used the verb to be.  But as an opening sentence, this is simple and direct and conveys immediately the information that Phyllis is different.  In this case (I would argue 🙂 ) the verb to be was the right verb for the job.

So it’s not really that there are verbs you want to avoid.  Rather, you want to choose the strongest word you can in any instance, verb or otherwise – the word that does the very best job of conveying your meaning in that sentence.

Part of the fun of writing is polishing our work until it shines, going over and over our sentences until each word is perfect.  🙂

BoldWriter, I hope that answers your question, at least somewhat!

And now, I open the floor to readers.  Do you have thoughts on verb usage?  Do you have a list of verbs you avoid?

Please feel free to email me your picture book writing, reading or teaching questions!  The next installment of Oh, Susanna! will be Monday June 5.

Have a marvelous Monday, everyone! 🙂