Creative Writing Tip: When “To Be” Becomes An Enemy

To be or not to be? That is the question.

To be or not to be? That is the question.

“To be”: it’s an essential verb. It’s the focus of one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies. And yet, one of the major tips we writers are always hearing is, “cut ‘to be.’ It makes for weak and passive writing.”

Though unavoidable and inescapable–and not bad, in and of itself–there are moments we writers doesn’t need to use “to be.” Many times, a stronger and more forceful option works better.

Now, “to be” can be a great tool. A wonderful tool. It helps us simplify sentence structure. It helps us avoid awkward and rambling wording. In such instances, an author or blogger is wrong to go out of his or her way to use a stilted phrasing just to avoid “to be.”

When “to be” isn’t a problem

Perhaps some will disagree, but a great tip I’ve picked up from learning Spanish–I’ve written before about the benefits of learning grammar through learning a second language–is that using “to be” as a helping verb in a progressive situation is never a problem.

What do I mean by a “progressive” situation? When you’re using “to be” to emphasize that an action is in progress at a specific time.

  • He was studying when I walked in.
  • She‘s walking the dog right now.
  • They were cooking dinner when Ann called with the bad news and threw a wrench in their plans.

In Romance languages, when speaking about the past, this is one major use of the imperfect tense. Learning how to use the imperfect correctly really taught me the value of this emphasis in English.

In English, we have no other way–at least, no simpler or unobtrusive way–to  underline that a specific action is currently taking place than this structure of “to be” plus a present participle. To drive home that “he” was in the process of studying when I arrived and interrupted him. That “she,” at this very moment, is outside with the dog. That “they” were physically chopping onions or cutting the fat out of some meat when the phone rang.

Is it possible to use a progressive structure too often? Perhaps. Could you write “She took the dog for a walk” instead of “She’s walking the dog”? Sure. Depending on context, that might work just as well.

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But in and of itself, when you use “to be” in the context of a progressive structure, you don’t need to worry about changing it. It’s not a “weak” usage.

“To be,” in such circumstances, is not your main verb. The real emphasis falls on studying, walking, and cooking, which are stronger verbs that evoke clear and powerful images.

So when is “to be” a problem?

“To be” becomes a problem in narration:

  • when it is overused to introduce a passive structure
  • when it is overused to describe
  • when it follows “it,” when “it” has no antecedent. (I spoke about this usage of “it” in depth last week. Some examples would be, “It’s horrible he did that” or “It’s simple enough to fix that problem.” You can find the post here.)
  • when it’s paired with “there,” to make “there is” or “there are”

Everyone always says, “Don’t use the passive voice.” I prefer to say, “Use the passive voice rarely, and for a purpose.” Sometimes, and especially in dialogue, a passive structure is clearer and cleaner than any forced rearrangement into a more active structure. Most times, though, that isn’t the case.

Now, besides introducing the passive voice, often “to be” affords us a cop out for weak but easy description. Consider this change I just made to my WIP, “The King Son’s,” in my final proofread. Originally, I’d written:

Kansten took an armchair, one she gripped so tightly the musculature of her arms was plainly visible in the lamplight.

Bah!!! Not only do I have “was” there, but the weakness of “was” guided me to use a second adverb in the sentence to enforce my point, because the verb wasn’t strong enough to pull that weight on its own. Well, as everyone knows, and as Stephen King says, the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

I changed my sentence to this:

Kansten took an armchair, one she gripped so tightly the lamplight exposed the musculature of her arms.

By changing the subject from a more passive structure to an active description of the lamplight’s effect, I eliminated both “to be” and an unnecessary adverb. A double win. All by making sure to employ a strong verb.

So, there you have my tips and my two cents for today. I hope you find this distinction between usages of “to be” helpful. Tomorrow I’ll devote an entire post to “there is” and “there are,” so make sure to come back for it!

Also, don’t forget that the first novel in my trilogy–the trilogy “The King’s Sons” will complete when it releases on May 31–is free for download today through Wednesday, April 24. If you like fantasy, or are considering trying something new, this is a great chance to catch up on what’s going on in Herezoth before the upcoming release. You can download “The Crimson League” from amazon.com here.

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20 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: When “To Be” Becomes An Enemy

  1. Thank you for this post. There have been times when I decided the use of “to be” verbs shouldn’t be avoided. You helped me understand why.

  2. Excellent advice! I totally agree. There is one grammatical construction (in my humble opinion) which also indicates that an action is ungoing – two actions in fact. It’s the word ‘as’: ‘As she walked down the stairs, she considered her plans for the day.’ Overusing ‘as’ is my personal pitfall! ‘While’ has a similar meaning, of course.

  3. Thanks for these interesting tips. They’ve given me a lot to think about! I also learnt grammar by learning a foreign language (German). We learnt almost no grammar at school during English lessons.

    • You’re welcome, Fiona. Glad you’ve found them useful. I’ve always wanted to learn German!!! My last name is German, and I have some German roots through my Dad’s father’s family.

  4. Thank you, this is extremely helpful. I didn’t study a second language (beyond the age of 16, when grammar wasn’t so central) and as a result my understanding of my own language is pretty poor. I know I write far too much passive (particularly as I studied for years before beginning to write fiction, and academic essays love the passive!). I’m also guilty of using ‘As’ as mentioned in the comments. When I went through my last manuscript I discovered every second or third line started with ‘As’. I pretty much decided to give up writing fiction then and there! I’m so glad I discovered your blog: I’m off to learn more interesting things about grammar now!

    • Oh my gosh, I spent 4 years in a doctoral program so I definitely feel you where academic writing is concerned. Fabulous observation!!!

      I’m so glad the blog is helping you! Don’t give up, for sure! I think every writer has certain phrases or structures she overuses. I DEFINITELY do. The key is to trim them down during editing.

      • It’s funny though, once you become self conscious about certain words or phrases your mind becomes blocked to alternatives. In my daily novel, because I write and edit 500 words at a time, I’m super aware that nearly every sentence starts with ‘She’ or ‘Claire’ or similar. I almost can’t remember writing any other way. Never giving up though!

  5. Reading this (and several of your posts) I keep thinking of the same phrase: “Everything in moderation.’

  6. Victoria, I have been enjoying your writing tips. You are reminding me of what to look for in my edits. I am going to my kindle now to download your book!

  7. Great information! Thank you. 😀

  8. Pingback: Fiction Writing Tips Blog Carnival Issue #4 | Fantasy Scroll

  9. Pingback: How a Focused, Limited “Baby Edit” Can Help Improve A Writer’s Style | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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