To be, or not to be

Verbing is hard. Mostly because there are so freaking many of them. But verbs are arguably our most powerful asset as writers to paint the picture within our reader’s minds. Which is why any form of the verb “to be” should be avoided if at all possible.

This is extremely hard, let me tell you. If you follow me on facebook, then you’ll know that I’m in the (hopefully) final edit stage of my first novella. Story and character are pretty well set save a few tweaks. But one of the biggest things my editor hit me with this go round is to get rid of every possible use of the verb “to be” that I could. A daunting task.

I’ll admit to some tantruming. This change entailed quite a lot of work after all. But when I finally sat down to make the changes I noticed a few things.

First, I use “were” quite a lot less than either “was” or “would”. I also found that “were” tended to be much easier to change than the other two past tense forms.

Second, and more importantly, I noticed just how much eliminating these verbs in favor of others benefited my writing.

You see “was” tends to be both lazy, and weak. It takes the focus off the verb, and slows the reader down. For my Scrivener users, try plugging “was” into that top search bar, and when your manuscript lights up like a Christmas tree, you’ll understand why. I found paragraphs were I used “was” maybe twelve or thirteen times in the entire thing. With that many instances, the word becomes way too noticeable, and will pull your readers out of the story.

Lets take a look at some examples from my edits of these changes.

“The shelves were stacked to the brim with books.”

Here’s a simple line to fix, but the impact the fix has is astounding. This line became–

“Books filled the shelves to the brim.”

As I said, simple. However, this line is one hundred percent more clear, as well as more vivid. The original line starts with shelves. We have no idea what kind of shelves, or what sits on them, and we don’t receive that information until the end of the line, when we’re already moving along.

But with the edited line, we start with books, giving us that visual immediately. Then the shelves they sit on. And finally ending on “brim” which is arguably the strongest word in the sentence. The line constructs the scene much better, and it only took the removal of “were”.

Here’s a bigger example.

“I saw these things, but they weren’t real. Just visions.”

Here’s a little context for you. This line comes in a section where the main character has been drugged with Mescaline, causing visions that allow this man to fake having Magickal powers. This sentence and sentence fragment are extremely weak, and not just for the “weren’t” nestled in there. Here’s the edit I went with.

“The drug set my mind and eyes at war with one another. The golden glow, the flowing fire and water; all visions.”

The new first sentence is much more vivid, and together they convey the information in a much more nuanced way. This is the best example I have of what you can do when you get rid of those “to be” forms.

So my advice to everyone is to go through your work, and take out every instance that you possibly can. For my Scrivener users, you can plug in the word in the search bar at the top, and it will highlight them in yellow. And let me tell you, it is satisfying to watch the number of scenes with each word in it dwindle down to nothing.

If you have some great examples of this yourself, feel free to post them in the comments below!

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