Wednesday, May 16, 2012

To Be or Not To Be (Or a Ridiculous Lesson in Editing)

by Dina Sleiman

Shakespeare posed his prolific question centuries ago, but perhaps he would have never guessed what it might mean to writers today. Yes, I’m referring to the dreaded “to be” verbs. Now if you’re a reader and not a writer, we’re about to tread into some terribly deep writing waters, but you might still enjoy this look into the twisted world in which your author friends attempt to live and work.

I’ve talked before about “the rules” of fiction writing. Often we hear a basic rule, but don’t understand the finer points. Don’t understand how to harness it and put it to practical work in our writing. One of those rules, discussed last week both on the American Christian Fiction Writers, is the one that says “avoid to be verbs.”

Now you might say, that’s just silly. I might say so too. But it’s not so silly once you understand the how’s, why’s, when to’s, and when not to’s of this rule. In fact, I’m working on my first big editing project for WhiteFire, and guess what one of my main issues with the book was? Exactly. Too many to be verbs.

Obviously there are time we need to be verbs (is, are, was, were, be, being, been) as well as other linking verbs. But in general the goal is to keep our verbs as active, specific, and powerful as possible. Let’s look at some problems to be verbs can create.

1)      Repetitive: Probably my main issue with to be verbs is that they quickly become repetitive. In writing we want to stay as varied as we can. We don’t want: The house was small. It was dingy. The door was covered with chipped paint. We want: The small, dingy house cowered against the horizon. Paint chipped from the door, as if it could not escape quickly enough. Be creative. Be original. It’s our job.

2)      Passive: The next problem that often occurs with to be verbs is that we use them in place of stronger, more active verbs. Example: I was hungry and tired. There’s no action. Instead try: Hunger grumbled in my belly and fatigue weighed heavy on my limbs. Not only are these more interesting and active verbs, they have more sensory impact. Perhaps the most passive of all is the “It was” or “It is” construction in which the “It” does not represent any actual noun. Example, “It was Sunday morning.” How about, “Sunday morning dawned bright and clear.”

3)      Telling: Another name for this sort of passive structure would be the dreaded “telling” that writers are warned away from.  In the first version above the reader is being told hungry and tired. In the second, they really begin to see and even feel the hunger and fatigue. When you notice whole passages are filled with to be verbs, chances are you’re using narrative summary. While this sometimes can be the most effective tool to quickly let us know something that happened, it packs no emotional punch, so use it sparingly.

4)      Distant: Related to the whole passive and telling issues, to be verbs can also create distance between the reader and the scene. You want your reader to feel drawn into the moment. Even into the body of your point of view character, as if they’re living out a fictional dream. To be verbs as well as unneeded helping verbs can destroy this illusion. Here’s an example with was as a helping verb. "She was walking to the door. She was pushing open the door, and then she was pulling out a cart." Perhaps this would work for some sort of out of body experience or for an observation of someone else, but otherwise, bring us right in close. "She strode with purpose toward the store, pushed open the door, and yanked out a cart."

5)      Boring: To be basically means equals. From the example above I = hungry and tired. Other linking verbs do this as well. And none is used more often than felt. I felt hungry and tired means the same as I was hungry and tired, which  means the same as I = hungry and tired. And they’re all BORING! There is a proper use for words like felt. For example, “I felt like I was about to die” actually means something completely different than “I was about to die.” Sometimes we need these verbs, but don’t be lazy with them.

You may have noticed that I also used was in my good example in the previous paragraph. That’s because often we need to. Now let’s look at some proper uses of to be verbs.

1)      Dialogue: In dialogue people should talk like people, and should speak in a way consistent with their character. Most people would never say, “I am weighed down with fatigue.” Unless maybe they’re an over zealous author or live in 1780. In dialogue most people would just say. “I’m tired.”

2)      Internal monologue: Sometimes an author gets so deep into the head of their point of view character that it basically is like dialogue. It’s the characters voice, not the authors. During these moments, use the words your character would use. “She couldn’t believe it. It was wrong. Just wrong. No! It was beyond wrong. It was unbelievably, shockingly, and unforgivably wrong!” As you can see, I especially like to be verbs in tirades.

3)      Simplest tool: And here we get to the heart of thinking like a seasoned, professional writer. Sometimes it’s just simpler and more to the point to use a to be verb. I learned from Angela Hunt that we have many tools in our writing tool boxes, and we shouldn’t use a sledge hammer when all we need is a little tap. Sometimes in order to avoid to be verbs we use sledge hammers. That’s not good. For example, it might take a paragraph to use active verbs and show, “He was wrong.” And maybe in that moment you just need to say it and move on.

So those are some of my thoughts on “to be” verbs. What are yours? Did you know about this rule? Have you ever been annoyed by it?


Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing has just released. She has recently become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire as well. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. Good post, Dina.

    So many writers bristle against this "rule" because they think it interferes with their natural voice. And maybe it does. But it's kind of like having a pleasant singing voice as opposed to being ready to perform professionally--it takes some work and training.

    My early writing was chock filled with be verbs... and otherwise very wordy. But the good news is, the more work I had to do in revision, changing verbs and restructuring sentences, the more natural those changes come in my next draft.

    I liken it to taking voice lessons. Yes, voice training changes your voice, but when done well, those changes are improvements.

    Or maybe it's just my lazy streak and I grew tired of editing.

  2. Barb, I actually wrote this post so I can refer writers to it in the future when I'm editing their work :)

    And you're right, after a while you don't have to think about this anymore. In my most recent manuscript, I don't remember editing for to be verbs at all. It's natural now.

  3. Great post. I especially liked the bit about the sledgehammer. It's important to remember the "rules" are there because they're mostly the best way to go. But not always.


  4. I LOVE the example of TO BE as meaning EQUALS. That is very helpful. I was impressed. (oops. Sorry.)

  5. Yes, DeAnna, it's important to remember the rules are there to serve the story and not the other way around.

  6. Ha ha, Deb. Now your facebook comment makes sense. I think blog comments are like dialogue. To be verbs are allowed :)

    But it sure does help to understand the whys behind the rule, doesn't it? I never even heard of passive vs. active voice until I taught a semester of highschool in 2001. It's actually a "grammar" rule these days that you should use active voice. The next generation probably won't struggle as much with this.

  7. Great post, Dina. It makes me wonder why we fall so easily into those passive verbs. Is it the way we speak, or does it come from what we read?

  8. Dina, you summed this up so well. This is great. When I get annoyed is when someone uses that sledge hammer over and over. Too much of that can have the reader tuning out.

  9. Niki, I think we do speak that way.

  10. I agree, Suzie. Some people get ridiculous. I think the Inkies have all reached a good point of balance on this issue.

  11. Dina, I like to think I have a good handle on balance, but sometimes I think that sledgehammer tries to pound its way in. I know my first drafts are full of to-be words, but try to get rid of them when I edit.

  12. Well, here's an interesting side note. In the manuscript I'm editing, when I first listened to it on my kindle casually, I didn't notice this problem. The story was so great that I couldn't put it down. I did think the writing could be more "artistic" in places. I also thought things got a little "hazy" sometimes. But when I sat and analyzed it, weak verbs were the primary culprits.

  13. Nice post, Dina. Thanks for taking the time to write it and share the info. I am reading an amazing book "Getting the Words Right" by Theodore Cheney and he discusses similar issues.

  14. That's cool. I'll have to check it out.


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