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The English language is vast, with a lot of words used to describe specific things or particular movements.

In the world of creative writing, the difference between good writing and great writing comes down to word choice. There are plenty of ways to punch up your copy with a few nimble substitutions for the more common verbs; descriptive verbs are an excellent place to start.

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What Are Descriptive Verbs?

A verb is a word that’s used to describe an action. Descriptive verbs, or “strong verbs,” are single-word actions that add to the tableau in the reader’s mind, giving it a boost of color and energy. In many cases, an engaging, vivid verb is more concise and telling than a straightforward, overused one. Think: The man ran quickly toward the smoke, versus The man sprinted toward the smoke.

Weak verbs are simply common ones—words that describe the bare minimum of the action. Sometimes that’s the best way to keep your writing clean and direct, but it can also lead to a lack of color, or personality.

2 Reasons to Use Descriptive Verbs in Writing

Using descriptive verbs is especially useful when considering pacing; active verbs help anchor your writing in the present tense, contributing to the exciting (or suspenseful, emotional, moody, exuberant) tone you might be going for.

Weak verbs, in general, are often supported by adverbs of manner (those descriptive words that end in “-ly”). Good descriptive verbs rid your sentences of the need for too many adverbs, and can also keep state-of-being verbs (like am, is, are, and was, which lead to passive voice) in check.

When to Use Descriptive Verbs

The best verbs help you hone your prose to give you the effect you wish to achieve. Think about the tone do you want to set—what feelings or mood do you want to evoke? What kind of language will best deliver the story you want to tell?

Reading your work aloud is an excellent way to both hear the sonic effects of your prose and catch awkward repeated sounds or other unintended effects. Read through your writing and make a note of where things feel too slow, or stale. Where are the moments where your prose stalls out? Highlight all the verbs you’ve used in that section and find stronger words to heighten the tension or enhance the mood of the scene.

3 Types of Descriptive Verbs

The most powerful verbs evoke imagery and emotion in the action of the verb itself. A dog doesn’t just eat its food—it gobbles it. The glass doesn’t just break—it shatters.
Questions to consider when replacing your verbs:

  1. Verbs of movement: Movement is especially ripe for descriptive words. Movements communicate how your characters feel, what they want, and how they present themselves to the world. Is your character merely walking along from point a to b? Or do they project more attitude with a saunter or perhaps swagger? Are they in a skipping mood? These movement verbs can also denote a sense of place, and urgency: Depending on the terrain, perhaps they plod through mud or stagger over jagged rocks. Suspicious characters might slink away into the darkness, or scamper just out of reach.
  2. Verbs of stillness: In real life, stillness is never entirely devoid of movement, and is equally revealing. A nervous character doesn’t merely sit, they perch on the edge of their seat. A rude character might slouch in their chair. A character who has just received terrible news may slump on the couch.
  3. Verbs for speech and expression: With dialogue attribution, you could write an entire novel using only “said,” without having to resort to more descriptive verbs like “shouted,” “cried,” or “whimpered.” The best answer is a balance: try to keep your language from jarring the reader out of the story, but considering your character’s intent when searching for the right descriptive verb in dialogue also allows you to quickly deliver more information to the reader. When is a laugh so cruel it becomes more of a snicker, or so unguarded it bursts forth as a guffaw? Muttering a word under the breath might be a sign of dissent, while a whimper is one of surrender. Create volume in your dialogue by introducing sound-oriented synonyms, like whispers or shouts.

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