I read an in-depth discussion of verbs in this week's NYT from Constance Hale (Make-or-Break Verbs) covering the kinds of verbs:

  • Static
    • Wimp
    • Existential
    • Sensing
  • Power

schoolhouse rock, verbIt's a good read, to be sure (check it out here). And it's loaded with good examples, which help illustrate her points and break up what is, I'll be honest, a very long read.

But it's a bit much for B2B content development, like emails, web marketing articles, memos, online marketing videos, etc. I take a simpler approach for business writing. Verbs really are where the action is. Using the right verb brings a zing to your copy. Here’s how:

1. Replace weak verbs with strong verbs.

Strong verbs not only convey actions, they also tell the reader how actions are performed. Here’s an example from a Tad Friend piece on Steve Carell in the July 5, 2010, New Yorker:

A reality show like “Jersey Shore” attracts a different audience than a guys-high-fiving dramedy like “Men of a Certain Age” or a mockumentary sitcom like “Modern Family” or “The Office” — yet they all plan for unplanned moments, engineering scenarios like life minus all the boring parts.”

“Creating”, “making”, or even the more awkward “coming up with” could have worked in place of “engineering”, but the careful choice of the stronger, more specific verb tells us not only that the scenarios were made, but how. “Engineering” completes the construction metaphor begun with “plan” and “unplanned” and establishes that the situations weren’t random events but deliberate scenarios built with technical expertise of a highly-trained professional.

2. Replace multi-word verbs with single-word verbs.

Sometimes, you get more from less.

  1. Consider this sentence: “I called him to set up a meeting for Friday.”
  2. Now this one: “I scheduled a Friday meeting with him”.

The second sentence is tighter and technically more precise.

3. Reduce state-of-being verbs.

Sometimes we rely on forms of the verb “to be” when more precise options are available. Here’s an example:

  • Original: “We can now reassure customers that if there was an event that would cause extraordinary losses, we are confident that their assets will be protected.”
  • Replacement of state-of-being verb: “We can now reassure customers that if an event occurred that caused extraordinary losses, we are confident that their assets will be protected.”
  • Strong verb choice: “We can now assure customers that their assets will be protected if extraordinary losses occur.”

Put it to work

Review the verbs in the content you create today. Replace weak verbs with stronger, more descriptive ones. Then evaluate your use of multi-word and state-of-being verbs to see if you can find replacements that will make your writing better.

Anyone else remember the Verb Schoolhouse Rock?

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