How to replace weak verbs with strong ones

Excerpt from a student's paper showing revised verbs.

Click on the picture for an enlarged version.

Replacing weak verbs with strong, specific ones is the key to good writing.  When new writing students begin with me, I work one-on-one with the students on this skill over and over to be sure they understand its significance and how to do it.

First, the student identifies the verbs used in the piece of writing, and lists them with tally marks to show how often the student used them.  To revise, we start with some easy words to replace, such as get, go, do, make and take.  The verbs are already encircled with color in the essay, so it is easy to find one of those words.  The student reads the sentence aloud, and I ask if he can think of any word to replace the weak verb.

In the sentence, “I go to JFK Elementary School,” for example, the student ponders the word “go.”  “I take classes in,” he might suggest.  With more prodding he might say, “I study in.”  I might accept that in a third grader, or I might suggest the word “attend” for an older student.  He crosses out the word “go,” and writes “study” or “attend” in the space above the crossed out word.  Then we move on to the next word.

In every revising lesson, I ask the students to use a thesaurus.  Many students have not used a thesaurus (or dictionary) before (except online), so this becomes a mini lesson on how to use those resources.  For the sentence, “I gave the dog a bath,” the student needs to know that a verb is always listed in the present tense, so the word to look up is give, not gave.  I explain that because “give” is so general, there are many meanings listed.  The student cannot pick any one.  He needs to choose a meaning that works for the sentence.  Sometimes we discuss which word works best based on many factors such as the child’s age, his grasp of vocabulary and the degree of formality of the writing.

Rarely does the student replace every weak verb.  Since I am teaching the student a process, nailing each verb is not my goal.  Learning that weak verbs should be replaced, and knowing how to replace them, is.

The hardest verb to replace is the verb “to be.”  We will talk about that in the next blog.

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