The verb “to be” has been causing trouble since Shakespeare’s time and possibly even longer.
I became aware of the potential damage this verb could cause when I joined the local writers’ club, many years ago. The authors in this group provide mutual help and support. Part of each meeting is devoted to readings. Writers may read a sample of their work and have it critiqued by the other members.
I had worked on a little story that I thought was not bad, so I volunteered to read it. My hands shook and my face turned bright red as I stammered through two pages of writing. Nervously, I awaited the critiquing. I was shocked to hear that all my writing and rewriting and polishing was still lacking, and, swallowing lumps of misplaced pride in my work, I began to learn how to write.
I will never forget that first critiquing comment. “Right at the beginning, you used the words ‘there were.’”
Yes, I thought. What’s wrong with that?
“You should avoid the verb ‘to be’ if at all possible.”
This was new to me. Wasn’t “to be” the most basic of verbs? Why not use it?
I didn’t volunteer to read aloud for the group again for a long, long time—it took a while to regain my confidence—but I listened carefully and made notes when others had their work critiqued. I learned SO much! I am still learning every day.
Today, I’d like to share with you what I found out about using “to be.”
It’s not that there is anything wrong with “to be” in all its forms and tenses; the problem is that when you use it, you’re not using anything better. “To be” is rather static, inactive, and boring. Most sentences using this weak verb can be rephrased to become much more interesting, and, if not action-packed, at least not comatose.
Let’s take some examples:
There were about a hundred people in the street.
Now, imagine the scene. Surely these one hundred people were not simply standing limply in the street. I have to come up with a good strong verb; one that is active, or makes us feel that action is imminent.
In the street, one hundred people … milled around, shook their fists, threw rocks (choose one of many possibilities)….
Or maybe: One hundred people shouted for justice in the street.
A cat was in the yard.
A stray cay slunk across the yard.
In each case, by shuffling the words around, we added action and interest.
Naturally, we sometimes need to use the verb “to be,” but when you are writing, be aware of it in its many forms and, if possible, try to substitute a stronger, more active verb.
Here are some of the variations of “to be”: is, are, am, was, were, have been, has been, had been, will be, was being, were being.
Next time you’re writing, look back at a section of your work and mark all the cases of the verb “to be.” Then see if you can find a way to improve the text by exchanging “to be” for a stronger verb. You may have to do some re-arranging of words and phrases, but in the end, it will probably make your story sing where previously it only droned.