Thursday, June 13, 2013

To Be or Not To Be

Recently I read a blog by another author about avoiding overuse of the verb “to be.” Having read lots of similar advice, I make a conscious effort to keep those verbs to a minimum in my fiction. Some of the familiar, often-repeated suggestions are not hard to practice: Use active voice rather than passive whenever possible. Instead of telling the reader a character’s emotions, show them through action and physiological reactions. Change sentences such as “Edison was the inventor of the phonograph” to “Edison invented the phonograph.”

In dialogue, however, a writer might purposely use a circumlocution like that or a passive verb structure to characterize the speaker as longwinded or indecisive. Another factor that often comes up in the issue of using “to be” verbs is the progressive mode. A strict abhorrence of these verbs can lead to a blanket condemnation of structures such as “he was standing” in place of “he stood.” Some critiquers mistakenly call the former “passive,” which it isn’t. The progressive, while it shouldn’t be overused, conveys a shade of meaning that’s often needed. “The beggar stood on the corner every day” doesn’t say the same thing as, “The beggar was standing on the corner when she walked to the bus stop.” Or “I ate breakfast late yesterday,” versus, “I was still eating breakfast when the bus came.”

I occasionally sneak in a “she felt” to avoid “she was,” but many writing advisers consider “felt” as much of a linking and “telling” verb as “was.” At times I find myself going to convoluted lengths to avoid “was,” “were,” etc. When a sentence comes out obviously strained in an attempt to avoid “to be” verbs, mightn’t a writer legitimately choose to go for the straightforward, short, and simple phrase? Sometimes it might be okay to say, “It was raining.”

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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