To Be or Not To Be: When To Avoid This Common Verb

Sorry, Billie. “To be” verbs are dead.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on writing craft, and I figured I’d jump into thick of it with one of the simplest but most difficult challenges you can give yourself as a writer. I want you to eliminate the most common verb in the English language from your writing.

For real.

This is another one of those bits of writing advice that people love to argue about. It ties into my posts on Showing and Telling and Fillers and Filters. So I decided to break it down in a little more detail and see if I can convert a couple of you disbelieving heathens.

In actual fact, very few of you guys have argued with me on any of my writing craft posts, which tells me that a) I have a great group of open-minded writers in my WordPress circles, and b) my posts are not reaching many beginners.

Or maybe c) If you want drama, stick to Facebook.

I’m going to pretend you want to argue with me, though, and present to you my thesis. Even if you don’t disagree with me, you might want a refresher on the secret wickedness of “be-ing.”

To Be or Not To Be: What Exactly is the Question?

“To be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, being, been, etc.) are ubiquitous. The are so common that we don’t even notice them as we read. We do, however, notice the effect they have on writing. If a description falls flat, or a scene reads like a list of actions, take a look at the verbs. “To be” verbs are the number one red flag that you are telling rather than showing.

Now, we’ve already talked about how telling is not always a bad thing and how to find the right balance for your story. So I’m not going to dig into that particular can of worms. But if you are telling a scene that should be shown, look at your “to be” verbs first.

The Quick Fix: Past Continuous

Some wicked “be-ings” are easily vanquished. Past continuous tense is almost never necessary and results in extra filler words that can be eliminated with extra work required.

Ex. 1. a) Billie was running to his play writing class.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class.

It doesn’t look like much, but applying this trick to an entire manuscript can result in thousands of quick deletes. Unless the action is about to be interrupted, you do not need to use past continuous. EVER. Just get rid of it and thank me later.

Ex. 2. a) Billie ran to his play writing class. He was rounding the corner when Milton stepped in front of him.
b) Billie ran to his play writing class. He rounded the corner and Milton stepped in front of him.

Okay, I realize these examples are dull, but technically you can get away with the “to be” verb in 2a. Is it necessary? 2b does the job without the “to be.” In this instance, you decide which you like better. My advice is to only use past continuous when you are interrupting and important action and you really want to highlight the interruption. Let’s spiff this scene up a bit with stronger verbs and eliminate the “to be” verbs:

Ex. 3. Billie sprinted up the stairs to his play writing class. He swung around the corner and crashed into a solid wall of muscle. Milton cracked his knuckles and grinned. He was peeling back his fist for a good right hook when Billie ducked, spun, and dashed into the classroom.

Like all of my so-called writing rules the trick is to know it, use it, and when you break it, break it on purpose WITH purpose.

Next Step: Kill the Narrator

All stories have narrators. It’s called “story telling” for a reason, right? Writers tell stories to other people. They either tell the story themselves, and are the narrators as in memoir, or they tell the story through a character who becomes the narrator in most fiction. However, modern readers are looking more and more for an immersive experience in their writing. Modern readers are extremely media savvy and modern writers have to work a lot harder to provide that immersive experience than our literary forebears. We are no longer simply telling stories, we want the reader to experience our stories for themselves as the characters.

To do this, we need to kill the narrator. We need to trick the reader into thinking they are the ones experiencing the story. We can do this in first person, second person, or third person narration with one simple (not necessarily easy) trick. Eliminate as many filter words as possible.

Filter words are unnecessary words that clutter up our stories and remind our readers that they are reading. THIS IS BAD. There are lots of kinds of filter words, and you can check out a broader example of what to look for in my article on Giving Your Writing a Fluff-Free Facelift. For the sake of this article we are going to discuss the dual offenders, “to be” verbs that are also filter words.

Ex. 1. a) There were deep lines around her sunken eyes.
b) Deep lines scoured the flesh around her sunken eyes.

In 1a, the reader is being told what the woman looks like. The words “there were” act as a reminder that they are not experiencing the moment themselves, but that someone is describing it to them after the fact. The “to be” verb in this example reduces the sense of immediacy.

When we eliminate the “to be” verb we are forced to replace it, which inevitably results in a more interesting description. “To be” verbs are the most common verbs in the English language. There are also, therefore, the most boring. Apply this rule to the verb “to have” as well and really give your descriptive scenes a boost!

Ex. 2. a) Daniel had auburn hair and there were freckles on his nose.
b) Daniel’s auburn hair stood up at irregular angles and freckles sprinkled his nose.

Try it yourself! Write a brief character sketch without using any “to be” or “to have” verbs. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is excellent practice. You will be amazed at how much more colourful your descriptions become when you are forced to give up this writing crutch. Post your example in the comments.

Advanced “Be-ing” Slaying: Telling What vs Showing How

If you use the Find feature in your word processing software to search for all of the “to be” verbs, you’ll find a few examples that don’t seem to fit the above scenarios. You’re going to have to use your discretion to decide if they are necessary or not. I often use the expression “telling what vs showing how” to decide if I’m achieving the effect I want with my writing. Really, it’s just another way of looking at the old showing and telling rule. But it can be a helpful way to subdue the evil “be-ings” before they completely infiltrate your work.

Here are some basic examples of Telling What something/someone is or is doing as compared to showing how they are.

Ex. 1. a) The house was big and white and seemed somehow cruel against the lush green lawn.
b) The house burst from the lush green lawn like a piece of bone, sun-bleached and jagged.

Ex. 2. a) The woman was old and there were streaks of dirt on her papery cheeks.
b) Streaks of dirt blackened the woman’s papery cheeks.

Ex. 3. a) Trudy was reading so intently her eyes were starting to water.
b) Trudy focused on the book so intently that her her eyes watered.

I haven’t made any major changes to these images, but eliminating the “to be” verbs has both forced me to come up with more interesting ways to describe these things and increased the sense of immediacy for the reader.

Conclusion

Okay, so you probably can’t completely eliminate “to be” verbs from your vocabulary. But I hope I’ve demonstrated how practicing writing without “to be” verbs will help you to expand and enrich the language you use, and how eliminating as many “be-ings” as you can will take your writing to the next level.

To be or not to be? Not if I can help it.

What do you think? Is this something you can use and apply to your own writing? Can you think of other ways these “to be” verbs can help or hinder your craft? Let me know in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “To Be or Not To Be: When To Avoid This Common Verb

    1. Yes, it’s tough at first! I’m slowly getting better at it, and am even getting into the habit of not using them in the first place. But I still find them all over the place in my rough drafts. I have been making good use of my “find” application in Word these days.

  1. I love these little writing classes of yours, it shows a writer how they can bring their writing to life 🙂

    1. Thanks, Simon! Sorry I’m so late to get to these comments. My supposedly low-key summer has been much busier than I expected. I’m glad you’re enjoying my tutorials! I have more planned… just need to find those elusive pockets of time to write them in, haha.

      1. Oh I know the feeling, finding time to do anything other than working is pretty hard right now. I’ll be looking forward to them 🙂

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