Memoir Tips — Vivid Verbs

Today begins a new blog series, a Q & A for memoir tips. Each third Monday of the month you’ll have a chance to follow along and have your own question answered! Post your question as a COMMENT or email  your questions to For more, visit my website,  

Q: My writing is flat. I see the story I want to tell so clearly in my mind, but when I write I don’t feel carried away by it, the way I was in real life. What can I do? — Flat Writing Has Me Down

A: Dear Flat Writing: The topic of enlivening writing is a big one, and an important one, but we’ll take it one step at a time. I’d like to tell you about the common mistake people make in an attempt to brighten their words. They reach for adjectives. “Her hair” becomes “her brown hair”; “the table” becomes “the large table.”

Adjectives that really do their job, that ADD to the picture being drawn, are another subject entirely. For now, keep in mind that including someone’s hair color or the size of a table doesn’t enliven writing. It’s verbs we want! Imagine this: Her hair was long and dark. It could be: Her hair hung like a dark cloak, shadowing her eyes. Or this: She came over, happy to see me. It could be: She strode across the yard, grinning.

Here is a list of Vivid Verbs you can print and use for ideas. As an exercise to practice using vivid verbs, choose 10 from the list and write them at the top of your paper before you begin writing. Steer your story in a way that lets you use these good words and surprise yourself with what can happen. Here are 10 selected randomly from my list for you to try:

abandon, blast, collect, dash, ease, fumble, gather, hoist, mumble, swerve.

I’d love to hear how it goes.

7 responses to “Memoir Tips — Vivid Verbs

  1. Hi Suzanne,
    Thanks for this insight. I was among the believers in adjectives. I need to switch allegiance right now!
    Cheers from France.

  2. The list of vivid verbs sounds interesting but the link to the pdf. does not work. Can you correct it? Thanks.

    • Thanks, Barbara. It’s a PDF file, link didn’t work after all; so sorry! Check out the post again for the list of 10 verbs to try out for a sample. Have a good time with them!

  3. I understand the need for vivid verbs but worry about when such writing becomes purple prose. I like vivid, and I love purple, but not in prosody! LOL

    • Purple is my favorite color! But purple prose, like yellow journalism, is nothing anyone wants. Vivid verbs cannot go purple when they’re used well. Overuse of adjectives is more likely to lead to purple prose, which could be translated as overwritten, overblown, overkill. I turn to Russell Baker for examples of excellent writing and great use of verbs, from his Pulitzer prize–winning memoir, GROWING UP. He writes (page 24) that: On a summer afternoon the whole place dozed in the sun, under silences broken only by the occasional cluck of a hen, the solitary clack of a closing screen door. Can you imagine a town that “dozes” in the sun? I’ve heard of a sleepy town (adjective) but this was the first time I heard of a town dozing. Just choose wisely and your prose will stay clear and not purple!

  4. Suzanne — Thanks for the fix. What an interesting list!

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