To be, or not to be…
(Part two in a series on the perils of editing)
Today is editing day for my new book, Conduit, and I’m doing the part of editing that I hate the most…the never-ending search for to-be verbs.
When we write a book, it’s important to focus on the tale itself. Making sure the characters are three-dimensional, getting the important parts of the story out, trying to keep the pace steady and quick. These things are hard enough without “writer rules” coming to mind every two seconds.
After we’ve written for a few years, we pick up on writing rules that we naturally incorporate while writing. But there will always be those handful of rules that we must check for during editing. The overuse of to-be verbs is probably the rule that most authors break. I know I’m a big-time offender.
What’s wrong with to-be verbs? Grammatically speaking, nothing. Forms of to-be verbs are considered passive voice and passive voice is grammatically correct. Your grammar check in Word won’t underline to-be verbs, so you have to search for them using the Find function of Word.
While grammatically correct, in technical terms, everything is wrong with to-be verbs. The passive voice is not one that you want in your novel or story. The passive voice slows down the pace of the story. Using stronger, active verbs tightens your writing. To-be verbs are also a surefire way to tell, not show, breaking the first rule of writing.
Before replacing to-be verbs, one must first know what they are:
am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been
Since most tales are woven in the past tense, we most commonly use was, were, being, and been. Grammar critics demand that all to-be verbs are eliminated from writing, but fail to provide the means of doing so. I’ve yet to read a book that hasn’t used at least one to-be verb, but that doesn’t make it acceptable to litter our books with them.
The easiest way to eliminate to-be verbs is to ask if there is a better way to write the sentence and still get the message across. Let’s take a line from the book I’m editing and rewrite it.
“Of course I’m sure,” Perry said, as if Lionel was calling his abilities into question.
Ah, there’s that nasty was…right smack dab in the middle of my sentence. Because it’s next to another verb ending in –ing, this was acts as a helper verb. Since we’ve identified this as a helper verb, it’s very easy to fix. We just eliminate was and make the other verb our main verb.
“Of course I’m sure,” Perry said, as if Lionel called his abilities into question.
That small change instantly makes the sentence stronger. But it’s not always that easy. Sometimes you have to rework the sentence to remove the to-be verb. In this case, we need to look at the sentences before it to reword.
Emily was the one who would make him whole,
the one who would help him fulfill his work.
This sentence requires a little more work than the last one. We need to remove part of the sentence to remove the to-be verb.
Emily would make him whole and help him fulfill his work.
By taking out a chunk of the sentence, we’ve not only removed the to-be verb, but we made the sentence stronger. Let’s look at one more example: two sentences haunted by to-be verbs.
Clive and Tonya Madison had been shot point-blank in their home
during a nighttime home invasion. Their newborn was left untouched
in his room down the hall, and it was assumed by the police that
the killer did not know about the child, or there would have been
three victims that night.
Ouch! This one is much tougher and will take a bit of work, but we can make it stronger and remove those awful to-be verbs.
During a nighttime home invasion, a frantic burglar shot
Clive and Tonya Madison point-blank while they slept.
In a room down the hall, their newborn escaped the killer’s wrath.
In the end, I decided I had a lot of fluff words in the sentences, and that’s why I felt the need to use to-be verbs. The rewrite says everything the reader needs to know, and makes it much tighter.
Removing to-be verbs is not always easy, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes. In the next post, we’ll take a look at the role to-be verbs play in showing versus telling and how to eliminate it from writing.