The most exciting part about grading student essays is the "Who wrote the blandest one contest." The winner gets an 'F-', humiliated in front of the class, and a punch in the gut for each weak verb used.
I felt good about myself. I had taught my students how to combine sentences and eliminate unnecessary adverbs from their writing. I had not, however, taught them strong verbs for writing, nor had I answered the question, "What is a strong verb?"
My students' bland writing tainted everything. All my food tasted bland. All my favorite movies became bland. Even my own writing became bland. I had to do something fast, so I called my Mom, told her I'd be home late and to feed my dinner to the cat.
I had work to do. I had to teach my students how to use strong verbs for writing. Here's what I came up with:
What is a Strong Verb?
Poor writing, the kind that is often found in student essays, relies on adverbs and adjectives. Good writing relies on verbs, strong verbs.
1) Strong verbs show instead of tell. In each example you can see how much better the second sentence is.
Example: The tiger ate the antelope.
The tiger devoured the antelope.
Example: The Buffalo injured the hunter.
The Buffalo gored the hunter.
2) Single verbs show better than verb/adverb combinations.
Example: He uses time wisely when writing essays.
He maximizes time when writing essays.
Example: The lion ferociously ate the gazelle.
The lion gobbled the gazelle (note the serendipitous use of alliteration).
3) Be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) suck the life out of your writing!
Example: He was bludgeoned by the boxer.
The boxer bludgeoned him.
Example: The pedestrian was run over by the school bus.
The school bus ran over the pedestrian.
4) Have/has/had combined with a noun encourage readers to wedge their head in a vice.
Example: I had an argument with the referee.
I argued with the referee
Example: I had dinner with the sheriff.
I dined with the sheriff.
Procedures for Revision
- Instruct students to copy the above information in their notebooks.
- Instruct students to identify all verbs in their draft.
- Instruct students to identify sentences in the draft that violate the guidelines for writing strong verbs.
- Instruct students to rewrite those sentences.
- Instruct students not to use the same verb over and over, especially at the beginning of a list of instructions.
- Divide students into pairs and instruct them to read their rough draft to each other. This works best if both students read at separate times.
- Tell students to listen for weak verbs.
- Make a final revision, exchanging weak verbs for strong verbs.
- Write the best revisions on the board.
For extra fun, make it part of a paragraph challenge.
* This lesson was inspired by Mini Lessons for Revision by Susan Geye, 1997, Absey & Co. Spring, TX.