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Monday, June 25, 2012

To Be or Not To Be - A Ridiculous Lesson in Self-Editing

Shakespeare posed his prolific question centuries ago, but perhaps he would have never guessed what it might mean to writers today. Yes, I’m referring to the dreaded “to be” verbs. Now if you’re a reader and not a writer, we’re about to tread into some terribly deep writing waters, but you might still enjoy this look into the twisted world in which your author friends attempt to live and work.

I’ve talked before about “the rules” of fiction writing. Often we hear a basic rule, but don’t understand the finer points. Don’t understand how to harness it and put it to practical work in our writing. One of those rules, discussed last week both on the American Christian Fiction Writers, is the one that says “avoid to be verbs.”

Now you might say, that’s just silly. I might say so too. But it’s not so silly once you understand the how’s, why’s, when to’s, and when not to’s of this rule. In fact, I’m working on my first big editing project for WhiteFire, and guess what one of my main issues with the book was? Exactly. Too many to be verbs.

Obviously there are time we need to be verbs (is, are, was, were, be, being, been) as well as other linking verbs. But in general the goal is to keep our verbs as active, specific, and powerful as possible. Let’s look at some problems to be verbs can create.

1)      Repetitive: Probably my main issue with to be verbs is that they quickly become repetitive. In writing we want to stay as varied as we can. We don’t want: The house was small. It was dingy. The door was covered with chipped paint. We want: The small, dingy house cowered against the horizon. Paint chipped from the door, as if it could not escape quickly enough. Be creative. Be original. It’s our job.

2)      Passive: The next problem that often occurs with to be verbs is that we use them in place of stronger, more active verbs. Example: I was hungry and tired. There’s no action. Instead try: Hunger grumbled in my belly and fatigue weighed heavy on my limbs. Not only are these more interesting and active verbs, they have more sensory impact. Perhaps the most passive of all is the “It was” or “It is” construction in which the “It” does not represent any actual noun. Example, “It was Sunday morning.” How about, “Sunday morning dawned bright and clear.”

3)      Telling: Another name for this sort of passive structure would be the dreaded “telling” that writers are warned away from.  In the first version above the reader is being told hungry and tired. In the second, they really begin to see and even feel the hunger and fatigue. When you notice whole passages are filled with to be verbs, chances are you’re using narrative summary. While this sometimes can be the most effective tool to quickly let us know something that happened, it packs no emotional punch, so use it sparingly.

4)      Distant: Related to the whole passive and telling issues, to be verbs can also create distance between the reader and the scene. You want your reader to feel drawn into the moment. Even into the body of your point of view character, as if they’re living out a fictional dream. To be verbs as well as unneeded helping verbs can destroy this illusion. Here’s an example with was as a helping verb. "She was walking to the door. She was pushing open the door, and then she was pulling out a cart." Perhaps this would work for some sort of out of body experience or for an observation of someone else, but otherwise, bring us right in close. "She strode with purpose toward the store, pushed open the door, and yanked out a cart."

5)      Boring: To be basically means equals. From the example above I = hungry and tired. Other linking verbs do this as well. And none is used more often than felt. I felt hungry and tired means the same as I was hungry and tired, which  means the same as I = hungry and tired. And they’re all BORING! There is a proper use for words like felt. For example, “I felt like I was about to die” actually means something completely different than “I was about to die.” Sometimes we need these verbs, but don’t be lazy with them.

You may have noticed that I also used was in my good example in the previous paragraph. That’s because often we need to. Now let’s look at some proper uses of to be verbs.

1)      Dialogue: In dialogue people should talk like people, and should speak in a way consistent with their character. Most people would never say, “I am weighed down with fatigue.” Unless maybe they’re an over zealous author or live in 1780. In dialogue most people would just say. “I’m tired.”

2)      Internal monologue: Sometimes an author gets so deep into the head of their point of view character that it basically is like dialogue. It’s the characters voice, not the authors. During these moments, use the words your character would use. “She couldn’t believe it. It was wrong. Just wrong. No! It was beyond wrong. It was unbelievably, shockingly, and unforgivably wrong!” As you can see, I especially like to be verbs in tirades.

3)      Simplest tool: And here we get to the heart of thinking like a seasoned, professional writer. Sometimes it’s just simpler and more to the point to use a to be verb. I learned from Angela Hunt that we have many tools in our writing tool boxes, and we shouldn’t use a sledge hammer when all we need is a little tap. Sometimes in order to avoid to be verbs we use sledge hammers. That’s not good. For example, it might take a paragraph to use active verbs and show, “He was wrong.” And maybe in that moment you just need to say it and move on.

So those are some of my thoughts on “to be” verbs. What are yours? Did you know about this rule? Have you ever been annoyed by it?


  1. You certainly covered the topic well, with great examples of when and when not to use these little words. :)

    1. Thanks, Tracy. I hate when people give vague rules without explaining how they work.

  2. I am taking a class on line right now with this as one of the lessons and your explanation WAS very helpful. Thank you.
    or should I say:
    your explanation inspired waves of beneficial understanding. :)
    Happy holidays.

  3. Hi AJ, I'm glad you found this article :) These issues are tricky. It's a matter of balance, finesse, and experience. Happy to have inspired waves of beneficial understanding.