3 Tactics for Using Verbs in Poetry

by Ellen Gwin

The three concepts I will introduce go in with the “show, not tell” theory. While a lot of people believe poetry (and other descriptive writing) mainly consists of adjectives, verbs act just as descriptive as adjectives while also bringing the reader into the moment when used properly.

By learning these three concepts one can learn to write in a descriptive and captivating manner.

Keep in mind that one does not need to follow these rules in their writing 100% of the time, I know I do not! However, they do work to make writing more interesting and should be kept in mind when writing.

  1. Strong Verbs VS Weak Verbs

Strong Verbs VS Weak Verbs

Weak verbs loosely state the action while strong verbs act as more of a descriptive action.

For Example:
I told her to slow down
VS
I advised her to slow down

For Example:
He ran around the building
VS
He scampered around the building

For Example:
He held the newspaper in his hand
VS
He clutched the newspaper in his hand

State-of-being Verbs

A type of weak verb which includes “to be” verbs on top of have/had/has, do/does/did, shall/will/should, would/may/might/must, can/could.

In the words of Richard Nordquist, “A state-of-being verb identifies who or what a noun is, was, or will be”

For Example:
I wanted to be on time
VS
I wanted to arrive on time

For Example:
He had to leave early
VS
He needed to depart early

For Example:
She was eating a cake when she began to choke
VS
She took a bite of cake when she began to coke

Verbs accompanied by adverbs

Another area where weak verbs occur is when an adverb accompanies a verb. If you’re having trouble replacing adverbs try replacing the verb instead or vice versa.

For Example:
He ran quickly to the store
VS
He dashed to the store

For Example:
She walked sadly around the house
VS
She moped around the house

2. Active Voice VS Passive Voice

Active Voice

Active voice makes sentences less wordy and the meaning more direct. Active voice also helps remove state-of-being verbs and other weak verbs. Active voice is useful when setting a strong and clear tone for readers.

Passive Voice

Passive voice becomes useful when the writer wants to emphasize the object(s) impacted by the verb. This is helpful when writing about victims of violence, famous works of art, geographical locations, etc.

What does this mean for my writing?

One should steer towards active voice but use passive voice to put relevant information at the forefront.

An example when active voice is better:

Passive:

Merlot was spilled on my white, lace Easter dress.

My lips stained my grandmother’s antique set.

Green tomatoes ripened too quickly to fry.

My copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray has blood on it.

The bushes lost their rose petals too early this spring.

Active:

Spilled Merlot on my white, lace Easter dress.

Red lips stained on grandmothers antique tea set.

Green tomatoes ripened too quickly to fry.

Drops of blood landed on my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Rose petals fell off their bushes too early in the spring.

An example when passive voice is better:

Active: The policemen killed George Floyd.

Passive: George Floyd was killed by policemen.

Active: I took an airplane to the ocean.

Passive: The ocean can be reached by airplane.

3. Propel Sentences with Verbs Instead of Adjectives

Often when people think of poetry, they think of flowery adjectives (and the wooing of women). However, while adjectives are useful and impactful when used correctly, the poem cannot move forward unless verbs become involved. Verbs also stimulates the readers senses, allowing them to feel more engaged in the work.

In a sense one could say verbs propel writing more than nouns or adjectives. When writing with verbs, the adjectives will come naturally and therefore not come across as overdone.

For Example:

I opened my eyes and saw an array of pastel flowers sitting in golden enameled vases.

VS

When I opened my eyes, I felt the room flower into an array of pastel hues with touches of gold gracing my giddy glances.

The first sentence falls flat while the edited version, with verbs propelling the sentence, the sentence pulls in the reader and allows room for the story to grow. Verbs could be used to discuss what else is in the room, to move to a different room, to bring in a new character etc.

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