To BE or not to BE: Reduce “to be” verbs to improve your writing

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Developing writers often rely on “to be” verbs when communicating action. To-be verbs are all forms of “be”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been. In some student papers, English teachers might find “is” as the verb in the majority of sentences. Even professional writers struggle with the over-reliance on “is” as a verb. So what is so wrong with using “is” and other to-be verbs in writing? Oh dear! I just used is as a verb in that last sentence!

Take a look at the following example:

The girl is pretty.

What does “pretty” look like? Is creates a vague description. What does the girl’s pretty actually look like?

The girl has flowing auburn hair, crimson lips, and eyes I could drown in for days.

In the first example, the is verb creates a lazy sentence; it isn’t showing the reader anything specific. The second example shows the reader exactly what pretty is.

 

Sometimes eliminating to-be verbs is simply a matter of substituting another word in the place of “is.”

The chocolate chip cookies sure were good.

The chocolate chip cookies sure tasted good.

That dress is lovely.

That dress looks lovely.

The kitten is so soft.

The kitten feels so soft.

In the previous examples, you could also show what good, lovely, and soft taste, look, and feel like to create an even more vivid description.

 

Eliminating to-be verbs can also be accomplished by changing a noun into a verb, as in the following example:

The tutor was the winner of the “Teacher of the Year” award.

The tutor won the “Teacher of the Year” award.

 Diane Sawyer is an anchor on World New Tonight.

 Diane Sawyer anchors World News Tonight.

 By changing the noun into a verb, the previous examples are also now more concise.

 

 In some cases, you can rearrange the word order in sentences to eliminate “to-be” verbs:

The snakes were slithering in the pit.

 In the pit the snakes slithered.

 

 The assassin was in the dark alley waiting.

 In the dark alley waited the assassin.

 

As you can see, there are many ways to reduce the amount of to-be verbs from your writing.

Let me restate:

As you can see, many ways exist to reduce the amount of to-be verbs from your writing.

It would be impossible to eliminate all to-be verbs from our writing, and sometimes we just need to use them when nothing else will do. However, the over-reliance on “is” and other forms of the verb creates weak sentences and vague descriptions. Knowing when – and how often – to use them is the first step in improving your style. I’ve chosen to use a few, and edit out a few, in this article. Using to-be verbs isn’t incorrect, but a stylistic choice.  Choose carefully.

 

Editing Tip:

Open your essay in a WORD document.

Under “Editing,” select “Find”;

Type in “is” with spaces around it, so “space, is, space” (this eliminates finding “is” in every word;

All “is” should be highlighted in the entire document. Do you see any paragraphs with an overabundance of is as a verb? Revise by incorporating the previous suggestions.

Follow by running a “Find” on the other “to-be” forms: am, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

How did you do?

 

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