To revise, replace weak or overused verbs with strong, specific verbs.

overused verbs list

When revising, I ask students to encircle each main verb (not helping verbs).  Then, on a separate paper, students make a list of the verbs, using tally marks to show how many times each verb is used.  Usually I help them to write the first list.  Present, past, future—all forms of a verb are treated as the same verb.  Many students are not aware that “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” and “been” are the same verb, so I often write those words together at the top of the paper, as well as “have,” “has” and “had”; “do,” “does,” “did;” “go” and “went.”

After the list with its tally marks is complete, I review the first draft, looking for verbs the student has not found.  Younger students sometimes don’t know what verbs are, so this is a learning experience for them.  Older students often miss identifying the verb “to be.”  I encourage independence, but I step in when the student doesn’t know what to do.

With the students looking at their completed list of verbs, I ask, “What do you notice?”  I hope they say something like, “Well, I used an awful lot of get and got, and also is and are.”  The point is for the students to recognize that they have overused some verbs.

How many is too many?  In a typical piece of student writing of two, three or four double spaced pages, three or more uses of the same verb is too many for my purposes, but there are exceptions.

  • I point out that we are stuck with repeating some verbs which haven’t many synonyms. “Play” is such a verb.  How do you say, “I play the piano” or “I play soccer” without using the word play?
  • Other weak verbs should be replaced even if there is only one of them. “Get,” “take,” “make,” “come,” “go,” “have,” and “do” are vague in meaning and can usually be replaced with more specific verbs.
  • When a verb is used as part of an idiom, it can be hard to replace, and I often allow such verbs for younger children. For older kids, I ask if there is another way to say the thought without using an idiom.

Now comes the most important work of revising:  replacing weak verbs with strong ones.  More on that in the next blog.

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