Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ask O: Are "To-Be" Verbs Really So Bad?

Oh man! Yes, my friends, they are. I’ve encountered this kill-your-to-be-verbs rule since I first started writing fourteen years ago, yet, I still spot the little buggers all over the place: in my editing, when reading a book, even in my own writing…gasp! It’s so easy for the sly weasels to stink up a perfectly lovely sentence (sometimes disguised as a contraction). So, to renew the battle against them, let’s remind ourselves the evil caused by to-be verbs.

First, a reminder. A to-be verb is any derivative of the verb to be. (You always knew I was brilliant.) Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

Am is Awkward
There is no reason why she should be so snooty.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written a worse sentence. Do you see how the to-be verbs complicate a simple thought? Just cutting most of them trims the sentence by almost half.

Why must she be so snooty?

Better, yes?

Here’s another example.
The grizzly is chasing the salmon down the stream that is winding through the woods.

Especially in a more complicated sentence (one fraught with such goodies as dependent clauses or prepositional phrases), to-be verbs only add confusion.

            The grizzly chases the salmon down the winding stream.

Ah. Relief.

Be is Boring
Margaret was sad because Jim said he was going to break up with her.

Ugh! The evil to-be verbs sucked the emotion right out of that sentence. It says she’s sad, but we don’t feel her devastation one bit. To-be verbs are the enemies of emotion.

Tears had dampened Margaret’s cheeks before her mind registered—much less accepted—Jim’s words. He wanted to … what? But she wore his ring. She’d asked her best friend to stand up with her. She’d even asked her sister. She longed to deny it, but the ache in her chest—and the clear gaze from Jim’s blue eyes—told her he meant his words.

I got a little carried away, but it points out something I’ve found. To-be verbs tend to lead to short-cut writing. They lead to “telling” instead of “showing.” I don’t know how many times I’ve gone through a manuscript looking to search and destroy to-be verbs and ended up not just finding adequate replacements, but delving deeper into a character’s emotion or expounding on a plot point.

Is is Icky
The tree was tall and had orange leaves. The swing that hung from its branch was worn from years of use. Looking at it, Elise was pensive, remembering her childhood.

Bland ickyness oozes from those nasty little words. Imagine replacing the was-es in that paragraph with worthy verbs.

The tree loomed from its high post, draping its orange leaves like a protective canopy over the squeaky swing. Eyeing it, Elise bowed her head as a memorial to her childhood and her one joyful escape from the sadness inside.

Now we’re talking. And again, just intentionally working to replace the to-be verbs got my creative juices flowing. I wonder about this Elise. Did she overcome her childhood?

A good rule of thumb: No more than two to-be verbs per page. I admit, sometimes they can’t be avoided. But if possible, slash those puppies!

What problems do you see with to-be verbs and how do you overcome them? I’d love to hear.

And don’t forget, I love answering your questions. Feel free to post them in the comments or at

God bless and happy writing,