Category Archives: verb choice

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

How to write more gut-wrenching words

If you want a gut-wrenching reaction from your readers, replace words with many syllables.  Instead, use single-syllable words.  And change long  nouns and adjectives into verbs.

girl writing and thinkingUse short, pithy words that have peppered English for centuries rather than words derived from French or Latin to arouse the greatest response.  Words with many syllables tend to be intellectual words, not emotional words.  For emotion, choose blunt words.  But be careful to check for tone and meaning.  Old words can have many meanings and many connotations.

Here are some examples.  Replace each of the boldfaced words with one of the suggestions.  Then ask yourself:  Does the meaning change?  Does the emotion?

1.  As the lion approached, I felt trepidation.  (fear, quaking, shivers, creeps, chills, a cold sweat)  Now take out “felt” and create a new verb from one of the suggestions.  (quaked, shivered, sweated)  Which grabs you?

2.  My insatiable brother ate both drumsticks from the turkey.  (greedy, gobbling, piggish, hoggish, swinish)  Now replace “ate” with a specific verb.  (gobbled, devoured, downed, dispatched, wolfed down)  Notice how replacing the verb gives a stronger visual image than replacing the adjective?

3.  Before the audition, the dancer’s legs fidgeted.  (jerked, itched, twitched)

4.  The corpulent passenger could not fit into the airline seat.  (fat, obese, fleshy, stout, portly, pudgy, plump, chubby)  Now replace “fit” with a more specific verb.  (compress, squish, squeeze, crush)

5.  The color of the girl’s eyes captivated the photographer.  (charmed, ensnared, bewitched)

Long words are not only harder to read, but they lessen the emotional impact.  If you want to appeal to emotions, use short Anglo-Saxon words.


How to add details and to choose more specific verbs

Lack of detail and weak verbs are the two writing shortcomings I see most often  in student writing.  Here is a game to improve both of them.

Take seven index cards and cut each in half to form smaller, squarer cards.  Write one part of speech on each card (noun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction, preposition and pronoun).  Repeat on the remaining cards.  Shuffle and place face down on a table or desk in front of a student. Put a pile of pennies (or BINGO markers or poker chips) near the deck of cards.  The goal of the game is accumulate ten pennies before your opponent does.

Now on a piece of notebook paper, write a simple, blah sentence such as “My dog eats food.”  Ask the student to pick a card.  Suppose she picks “verb.”  Ask the student to cross out the verb “eats” and in its place to write another verb.  If the student writes “likes,” tell her that “likes” is another “blah” verb, so she can take one penny and start her own pile with that.  Explain that a more specific verb would have earned her two pennies.  She might say, “Well, wait a minute,” and she might think of a better verb.  She might say “devours.”  Praise her choice and ask her to take another penny for a total of two.

Now it is your turn.  Pick a card.  Suppose it says “adjective.”  Think out loud so the student can hear you think.  “I could use ‘hot’ to describe the food, or I could think of another word.  My dog devours hot food.  One penny.  Hm.  How about My dog devours meaty food.  Two pennies.”  You take two pennies.

And so you go back and forth until someone earns ten pennies.

For older students, add more words to the cards, such as “infinitive, gerund, and subordinate conjunction.”

The best sentences to use are ones the student has already written.  Take student sentences from submitted work.  If you play this game before the student turns in a final draft of a paragraph or an essay, allow him or her time to improve the sentences.

If you are working with a class, you can write the sentence on the overhead projector or white board and allow students to work in groups to suggest alternate words.  One group competes against another.

When students are familiar with the game, you might come up with a symbol—such as a purple circle around a word—to identify words which could benefit from being more detailed or more specific.  When you return student writing, allow students time to improve the words circled in purple.

What do students learn from this game?

  • How to choose specific verbs.
  • How to add details.
  • How much better their writing sounds when they choose specific verbs and add details.
  • How to identify various parts of speech.
  • That you design cool learning activities.

Anytime you can turn learning into a game, students jump on board.

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

Use colored pencils to help students revise drafts

Most of my elementary and middle grade students write first drafts in pencil.  A few type theirs into a computer.  But when we revise–hard copies or electronic ones–we use colored pencils.


This book summary was written and revised by a third grader.

I ask students to circle verbs and verbals with one bright color, such as red.  It’s easy to find verbs when they are encircled in a bright color.  We list them, use tally marks to identify which ones are overused, and then go back to the copy to replace overused verbs or weak verbs.

Next I ask students to choose a different bright color, one that is easily distinguishable from the first color, such a violet, green or blue.  Now the student encircles the first word of each sentence with that color.  Because the color prominently displays the first words, those words are easy to spot.  I ask students to read them aloud, listening for repetition.  When we find the same word used frequently, the student rewrites the sentence beginning to add variety.

For older students, we look at those same sentence opening words and identify their parts of speech to see if the student is overusing one part of speech, such as adverbs, and under-using another part of speech, such as prepositions.  If he is, he makes appropriate changes.

Some children overuse particular words, such as “so,” “just,” “then,” and “and.”  If I notice this, I ask the student to choose another color and to circle the overused word.  The abundance of color helps the student to recognize how frequently he has overused a word.

Revision might mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, or inserting new information missing from the first draft.  That too can be identified with arrows and stars in bright colors.

For poor spellers, I either encircle misspelled words in a particular color or highlight them with a marker.  From those words, I create a spelling study guide.  At the next lesson I quiz the student on the misspelled words.

When students see a first draft spotted with color, cross-outs, X’s, erasures, arrows and inserted words, they know they have revised.  So do parents without reading a word.

Should you write with a long word when a good short word is available?

Research shows you should choose the short word.

Nine years ago, a teacher at Stanford University had 71 students read several writing samples and then rank them. Some of the samples were “doctored” to replace simple nouns, verbs and adjectives with more complex words. The result: students rated the authors of the complex vocabulary samples as stupid.

happy pencilConcludes the author of the study, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “Write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”

Stan Berry, coauthor of five books on writing, agrees. He says readers will stop reading when they are confused. To keep your writing clear, he advises using short, simple words.

Robert Frost, maybe the most renowned US poet, advised to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin for both simplicity and clarity. If you read his poems, you’ll rarely find long words or words of Latin origin. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example, Frost uses only one three-syllable word, “promises.” The rest are mostly one-syllable words, and all are every-day words a child could understand.

So how do you select a good word? Ask yourself:

  • Is the word’s meaning clear and specific? If so, use it. If not, keep searching.
  • Does that word fit with the other words you are using?  Does it sound like it belongs, like it is the most natural way to say what you want to say?   If it sounds wrong (too formal, too intellectual, or too childish), don’t use it. Choose another.
  • Does that word stand out? Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes a highfalutin word can sound awkward amid simpler words. Keep searching.
  • Lastly, if you’re not sure about a word, and you keep going back to it, replace it.

How to use the present perfect verb tense correctly

The present perfect verb tense is often not used by student writers.  Or if it  is used, it is often used incorrectly. Yet it is an important verb tense to master in speaking and in writing.

What is the present perfect? It is the verb tense which combines the helping verb “have” or “has” with the past participle of a verb: I have eaten; she has slept; you have written.

Many times there is a double problem in using this tense, and that is choosing the proper past participle. Regular verbs in English use the past tense as the past participle and create no problems for students: I have jumped; he has watched; they have learned. But the verbs we use the most in English—be, do, have, go, come and hundreds more—use an irregular past participle: I was but I have been; you gave but you have given; it did but it has done.

Another problem is knowing when to use this verb tense. It has three uses:

  • To describe something that began (or didn’t begin) in the past but is still going on
    o Jack has pitched since the first inning.
    o My friends have studied for the test for many hours.
    o I have not slept since 6 a.m.
  • To describe something that happened many times (or didn’t happen at all) in the past.
    o She has eaten there many times.
    o They have not studied in the library all semester.
    o We have always followed his advice.
  • To describe something that happened (or didn’t happen) in the past when it is not important to know exactly when it happened.
    o Yes, I have traveled to Seoul.
    o No, I have not eaten baklava.
    o Aunt Marie has made many quilts.

Children born to well-educated English speaking parents learn to use this verb tense correctly the way they learn everything else about English—by listening to and mimicking their parents. For English speaking children whose parents do not use this verb tense, learning it is hard, as it is for ESL students.

One almost painless way to learn the present perfect is to read, read, read. Good writers use this verb tense correctly unless they are mimicking the dialog of a character who is poorly educated. With enough reading, students will pick up subconsciously how this verb tense is formed and might discern when to use it. However, most children will need this verb tense explained, and will need to practice it over and over, year after year, in school.

Although grammar is less stressed in schools today, a good teacher or tutor will notice if her students speak or write with the past tense when they should be using the present perfect tense. That teacher will offer a lesson on this verb tense. One or two lessons usually isn’t enough. The present perfect needs to be reinforced with practice. You can find practice activities online and in grammar handbooks.

Why is it important to master the present perfect verb tense? After all, some languages have existed hundreds of years without such a verb tense. Can’t a student write, “Yes, I went there several times,” instead of writing, “Yes, I have gone there”? The meaning is clear both ways.

As I tell my students, people you want to impress as you get older—the person who interviews you for college acceptance, or the person who reads your admissions essays, or your professors, or the person who interviews you for a professional job, and the parents of your future spouse—might judge you by how you use English verb tenses. These people are not reading or listening to hear if you use certain verb tenses, but they will know immediately when you use a verb tense incorrectly, and your status might drop in their eyes. Not fair, you say.  Maybe, but that’s the way of the world.

Correct use of the present perfect verb tense is a sign of a well-educated English-speaking person.