Students know how to mimic all the words that we use to describe interesting – sensory images, unusual syntax, well-developed descriptions, vibrant verbs. But ask them to actually incorporate those techniques in their writing and they begin to stumble. My response is to give them little exercises that require their use.
Recently I worked with some students trying to conjure vibrant verbs to replace the old tired common ones. Actually the common ones are quite useful (which is why they are common). Did you ever try to carry on a conversation and not use some form of have, get, go, do or say?
Students first had to tackle finding vivid variations of “said.” This is a lot harder than it sounds. When I write dialogue I am acutely aware of how many times I have employed “said.” However, it interferes with the flow of the dialog if I have to keep stopping to search for alternate words. My own solution was to create a handy list of words for “said” that indicate basic emotions – timid, angry, scornful, happy, excited, surprised, scared and sad. (It’s surprising how well “scream” can describe more than one of these emotions.) So this is what I assigned the students to do. But to be honest, when I write I end up using “said” more than anything else. I’ve heard readers don’t notice this and I hope that’s true.
In the second exercise the students had to replace “walk” in the sentence “He walked across the room.” The new verbs had to express walking in a manner that indicated the person was slow, clumsy, showing pain, and tired. At first students wrote bland sentences like “He walked slowly.” I had to repeatedly explain the idea was to exchange the verb, using one word only. There is a pleasure of seeing economy in writing, using few words without sacrificing the richness of description. When one came up with “He walked like a snail.” I had to admit it was creative and worked just as well as “He crept.”
In the end we basically performed charades. I asked a student to walk slowly across the room while others yelled out single words to describe what she was doing. I managed to get a few such as “shuffle” and “wander.” As we moved on to uncovering some verbs for the remaining descriptions, I realized that when a person walks clumsily, with pain, or in fatigue it looks very similar. The students still managed to come up with variations such as “meander, limp, stumble, stagger, totter.”
My favorite verb replacement “He slouched across the room,” sounded more like the walk of an over-self conscious teenager, a category that definitely fit some of my volunteers. In the end students had to borrow from their neighbor to find the three required verbs for each description.
By the time I finish reviewing their assignments I may be a bit bored with reading the same “vibrant verbs” over and over again.