Saturday, February 12, 2011

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

So, today I helped out at my kids' school for a highly anticipated Saturday snow make-up day.  Believe me, the kids were not the only ones who did not wish to be there.  But I did find the silver lining.

The teacher who I was covering for had left a writing worksheet for a small group of 5th and 6th graders.  I was impressed that these young writers were learning concepts which many older, more experienced writers (including me) still struggle with, so I thought I would reproduce it here.

Using Strong Verbs:

Each sentence below uses a weak verb and an adverb to show action. Rewrite the sentences using the strong verbs at the bottom of the page that do not need the help of an adverb.  The first one is done as an example.

1) The fox walked sneakily toward the chicken coop.  Answer: The fox crept toward the chicken coop.
2) The little girl spoke softly during the movie.
3) Tommy cried loudly when his toy broke.
4) The eagle flew gracefully over the valley.
5) Jason moved quickly out of the ball's way.
6) Melissa went across the room quietly.

Strong Verbs Word Bank:
whispered    tiptoed    pounced    raced         laughed
dodged        soared    crashed     screamed   crept
worksheet designed by Gary Robert Muschla

I thought these were some great, basic examples to help young writers learn the impact of strong verb choices.  But then, knowing that JK Rowling often gets criticized for her overuse of adjectives and adverbs, I decided to peruse her text for a few examples of strong verb choices, and they weren't hard to find.

First, from Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, in "Through the Trapdoor," when Harry, Ron, and Hermione confront McGonagall's giant, magical chess set:

He [Ron] stepped forward, and the white queen pounced.  She struck Ron hard across the head with her stone arm, and he crashed to the floor -- Hermione screamed but stayed on her square -- the white queen dragged Ron to one side.
From pounced, struck, crashed, screamed, and dragged -- all these verbs are strong and punchy.  They convey strong, visually evocative action without the need for adverbs.  You'll notice that even though JKR uses a wonderful "struck" instead of "hit," she still added an adverb, "hard," which probably was not necessary.

Then, from Deathly Hallows, in "Bathilda's Secret," when Nagina escapes her disguise as Bathilda Bagshot and attacks Harry and Hermione:

The snake lunged as he [Harry] took a running leap, dragging Hermione with him; as it struck, Hermione screamed, 'Confringo!' and her spell flew around the room, exploding the wardrobe mirror and ricocheting back at them, bouncing from floor to ceiling; Harry felt the heat of it sear the back of his hand.  Glass cut his cheek as, pulling Hermione with him, he leapt from bed to broken dressing table and then straight out of the smashed window into nothingness, her scream reverberating through the night as they twisted in mid-air...
Strong verbs aside, one quibble I have with the above paragraph is that it's basically two very long sentences.  I would have broken each sentence up at each semi-colon, if not further.

Still, JKR pulled no punches, either from her use of strong verbs, or her disturbing imagery.  As the books have darkened from Philosopher's Stone through Deathly Hallows, so too has her imagery.  While visualizing a man with a parasitic face stuck to the back of his head was gross in PS, I can't imagine anything much more grotesque than a snake bursting out of an old woman's corpse-skin!

As I force that image out of my mind, think about your choice of verbs.  Are they the strongest (appropriately) that they can be?  Or do you have something that you, too, can learn from a 5th grader? :-)

Wizard Chess picture credit
Bathilda & Harry picture credit


  1. Dang those 5th graders. I am now revising my work. lol. Thanks and great examples, as always.

  2. Great post as always. Strong verbs make your writing strong. Don't be a timid writer!

  3. great post! found through Lisa (above) retweeting link. nice work!

  4. Thanks for all the comments. Sorry to be slow to respond. Was away all day.

    And welcome to the blog, Alison! So glad Lisa RT'd and you found your way here!

  5. Awesome and so true! JK might use adverbs, but I thinks he uses them the right way. I'm always amazed when my kids' teachers talk about voice and concepts like that.

  6. Yes, Laura, I agree. I'm amazed with some of the young writers my kids' age. They've received much more instruction than I had at their age and are very talented. The future of storytelling, in whatever mode it changes, will remain strong.