Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rewriting prompt: Not to Be

In a blog editing tip way back in September 2013, I wrote that "No word in the English language is as insidious as is is." What I meant is that the forms of to be, whether as helping verbs or linking verbs, can become like table salt: you can use it with almost anything, but too much of it can make the whole thing unpalatable.

That might be a bad metaphor.

At any rate, it's a verb that is overused. It even made a double appearance in that last sentence.
Sarah Bernhardt, dressed as Hamlet, contemplating a box of Morton Salt

Today's rewriting prompt helps you (I hope) take a closer look at overbeing and move toward better verbs.

Start with something you've written — it can be fairly lengthy. Mark every instance you can find of to be: every am, is, are, was, were, and be. (Using the Highlight option in Word's Find and Replace can save you some time here.) Now read through your work and, whenever you get to one of these marked words, see if you can improve your sentence by rewriting it without that to be.

Ulterior motive

This more or less means replacing boring verbs with active and interesting ones.

Keep a eye open especially for to be paired with a participle. For example:
  • He was running from the law.
  • He is thinking he can get away.
  • He will be hiding for more than a month.

I see it rather often that writers (and I've caught myself a few times) will slip into these progressive verb tenses when simple past, present, and future would be briefer and cleaner. Remember: Doing something is more interesting than being something.

You won't be able to get rid of all your to bes, and you shouldn't try. Sometimes is is the right choice; "I am killing it with this blog post" doesn't have the same ring to it as "I kill it with this blog post," for example. (Both, however, are equally false.)

With each to be you consider, you'll have to use your judgment to decide whether it stays or goes. Only context can tell you if those previous examples would be better written like this:
  • He ran from the law.
  • He thinks he can get away.
  • He will hide for more than a month.