‘Be’ can sting

Here’s a simple trick to make your writing and editing more powerful: eliminate the verb “to be” in all of its forms. Those forms include “am,” “are,” “is,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” and “been”—and any contractions involving those forms. (Examples: “they’re,” “here’s,” “she’s.”)

OK, OK. Astute readers will see that I have used forms of “to be” throughout this blog—even in the very first word in this blog post. Guilty as charged. In “professional” writing, however, I try my darnedest to avoid forms of “to be.” On a personal blog—well, I allow myself to lapse into a more conversational tone and to yield sometimes to the stream of consciousness.

Image source: http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN04-23-99/bee_story.htm

Image source: sandia.gov/LabNews/LN04-23-99/bee_story.htm

Eliminating “be” from your writing is a goal, an ideal should serve as a goal, an ideal. Sometimes there’s just no way around it you just can’t write around it. Sometimes you simply can’t remove it from a colloquialism or an expression. And you should never try to remove it from a direct quotation—that is, one that you put inside quotation marks. (Regard direct quotations as sacrosanct.) But the fewer incidents of “to be” you have, the stronger your writing will be becomes.

Why avoid “to be”? Well, for one thing, when you slice away forms of the verb, you automatically get rid of passive voice. What’s passive voice, and why is it bad? Look for elaboration in an upcoming blog post, but in short, passive voice follows a “mistakes were made” pattern, whereas active voice tells you that “I made mistakes.” Passive voice always requires a form of the verb “to be,” and passive voice often omits the subject performing the action. Passive voice, therefore, generally leaves too many mysteries for the reader. It lacks clarity. It builds confusion. It dilutes your message. Avoid it. One easy way to do that: strip “to be” from your writing.

When you get rid of “be,” you are forced force yourself to find stronger verbs and phrases that do a better job of explaining actions and events. As you ditch “be,” you might discover that important players and pieces suddenly materialize in your writing—players and pieces that you otherwise might have neglected or overlooked by giving them the passive-voice or “be” treatment. Your writing becomes clearer. Your reader becomes better informed, more engaged. You have helped your reader draw pictures in his head, visualizing the processes and events in your writing. The approach also helps you cover your rear when writing about particularly tricky topics. The vagueness that sometimes comes with “be” leaves the reader to make assumptions. Sometimes that vagueness can imply that Person B performed an action when, in fact, Person A performed the action.

So what’s the alternative to “to be”? Think in terms of action. (And keep in mind that “action verb” does not necessarily equal “action-packed.”) Things can sit, stand, serve, emerge, prove, become, run, appear, rise, roll, act as, support, offer, open, shine, simulate, come, endure, see, rest, represent, include, carry, and lie. And that’s just for starters. Grab a dictionary or a thesaurus for more verbs, or think in terms of what something (or someone) does or what purpose it serves or how it interacts with something around it. Create for yourself an at-the-ready toolbox full of stronger verbs and phrases. Again, think in terms of action, action verbs, activities, and chains of events.

How do you go about purging “be”? One of the best times to kill “be” is comes during the revision process. Go ahead and write as you would normally write. (Fixating too much on eliminating “be” during the initial writing/drafting process can be distracting distract you from your typically fluid writing process.)  Then go back and flag all the forms of “to be.” And then dig in; get busy with the rewriting. Often, one or two replacement words will do the trick. Sometimes, however, you’ll need to do some significant tinkering to take the “be” out. Eventually, you will get to a point at which you start writing in an “anti-be” mode. You’ll think in terms of “be” while writing first drafts, and you will somewhat automatically purge or avoid “be” as you go along.

Don’t believe me? Just for fun, look at any piece of writing (a news article, a blog post, a product brochure, an essay) and highlight all the forms of “to be.” Then try plugging in some fresh verbs and phrases to see how much stronger and clearer the writing can become. (Congratulations. You’re an editor now.) Also, take a look at a piece of writing that you view as being consider well-written or stellar. Highlight all the forms of “to be,” if any. Note how the writer has used “be.” … Sparingly? For certain descriptions but not for others? Only in a conversational or vernacular way? Only with “there,” “here,” “what,” “that,” or “it” but not for people and things?

It’s tough to find totally “be”-free writing, but the best writing I encounter goes light on the forms of “to be.” Taking some or all of the “be” out of your writing should bring only good things—namely clarity, accuracy, and focus that will make your writing more useful to your reader.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.

2 responses to “‘Be’ can sting

  1. I agree, Scott! Strong action verbs create stronger writing.

    When editing my papers, one of my steps includes seeking out all the “be” verbs and seeing if I can switch them with a different verb.

  2. They hide so easily in plain sight, don’t they, Sarah? It’s rewarding to see how getting rid of just a few of them can turn a dull paper into a sharper paper.

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