To be or not to be: Avoid overusing this verb

Many blog posts implore authors to avoid using the most common verb in any language, ‘to be.’ In any of its conjugated forms, it slows your writing down to a crawl and readers find it boring to say the least.


Lego Shakespeare by Ryan Ruppe. Used under CC License


1. Using ‘to be’ in an initial draft is not the end of the world. I use it too. After all, you shouldn’t sit at your desk with your arms folded trying to rephrase a sentence when you’re hammering out a first draft. It’s better to get your ideas down on paper and revise them later.

2. ‘Was’ can push your #writing into a passive voice. I consciously avoid the passive voice, even in a first draft. However, you’ll see in the sample paragraph below, I used it without realizing.

3. Of course this “rule” does not apply to dialog. Remember, dialog should never appear as grammatically perfect and edited sentences. That will make your characters seem wooden and artificial. For more on dialog, follow the link to an older blog post. Writing Better Dialog

Here’s a sample from a short story called “Hope and Prey,” which will appear in my next collection, “Stasis & Other Dystopian Tales.” You will notice other revisions besides different forms of the verb in question. The ‘find’ function in Microsoft Word can help you to isolate the words you’re trying to avoid. Then as you edit, you’ll notice many other places where revision is needed.

There’s no context concerning the following paragraphs (we’re jumping in on page 3), but I think you’ll understand.

A First Draft…

From this point on, any exposure can be deadly. Crossing an open field means leaving the cover of trees, shrubs, and shadows behind. Jennifer cupped her daughter’s chin and nudged it to get the child’s undivided attention. She held up her index finger and placed it on her lips.

Baby Sarah nodded that the message was received. Remain quiet, remain still.

There were many stories of this area. But the lack of people made her wonder if any of the stories were true. Then she wondered if their numbers were down from eating each other. It seemed plausible to her, but it wasn’t enough to take any unnecessary risks.

“Why don’t we walk around the edge?” Baby Sarah whispered.

Jennifer nodded. Out of the mouths of babes, she thought. It would take a lot longer, but the safety of cover was too important. After all, they were about to enter cannibal country.

And a revision…

From this point on, any exposure could be deadly. Crossing this open field meant leaving the cover of trees, shrubs, and shadows behind. Jennifer cupped her daughter’s chin, gained the child’s undivided attention, and held an index finger against her lips.

Baby Sarah nodded. She understood the message. Remain quiet, remain still.

Many stories about this area circulated around the trading camps. But the lack of people and activity in these woods made Jennifer wonder if those tales possessed any truth. Perhaps their population decreased from eating each other? That idea seemed plausible, but not definite enough for her to take an unnecessary risk.

“Why don’t we go around the edge?” Baby Sarah whispered.

Jennifer agreed. Out of the mouths of babes, she thought. Crawling around the perimeter would take a lot more time, but the importance of cover forced her decision. After all, they stood on the border leading into cannibal country.


Was this helpful to you? Now go edit that stack of paper from NaNoWriMo 2015 🙂

14 thoughts on “To be or not to be: Avoid overusing this verb

      • What appeals to me in the revised paragraph? A few things.

        In the first paragraph, this simple change “Crossing this open field meant” puts me right in the field instead of some random field. This means the threat is more imminent.

        In the rest, particularly the third paragraph “Many stories about this area circulated…”, the writing is more direct, making you feel as if you are sitting right beside them instead of watching from afar.

        Liked by 1 person

          • “Trolled”? Do you mean they disagreed with you and opposed the search and destroy of ‘was’ and ‘were’?

            I’m not on Google+, but I am aware there are many harsh comments said in forums. This is why I’m not a member of some things. I’ve even left Facebook groups because of the bashing. Sometimes it is directed at me, but mostly, I leave before it gets to me because I hate to see others bashed and personally attacked by words. It’s childish and mean.

            By the way, I meant to tell you: when I open this post and my son walks by, he stops to admire the Lego ‘art’. He’s a Lego nut. He has no idea who it is, but he knows his Lego.

            Liked by 1 person

            • It got trolled because it doesn’t solve the show vs tell problem. Also they didn’t like the revised paragraph saying it was substandard writing.
              I thought it was a misunderstanding, so I messaged back that its not intended to be a show vs tell primer. Nor was the second paragraph considered or recommended to be a final draft.
              Then she bashed again and got personal. So I decided to ignore her and not respond. Unfortunately I can see by my stats that 28 clicks came into the post from Google+. The lack of “likes” and comments lead me to believe that the trolling response “poisoned” anyone who came in here.

              Cute anecdotal about your boy. Have him make a lego bust of you. That should be fun. 🙂


    • Hey Nick! Glad you like my little sampling. Also check out Diane’s link above. It’s funny that I never realized how often I made that faux pas.

      P.S. Really liked your post on narrative plot from screen writers. It made me think about the scene from Sunset Boulevard when William Holden (a screen writer) tries to pitch a new script to a producer.
      I can’t remember the exact quote, but the secretary says to the producer “Plot number 27 with subplots 32A and 16C.”

      Liked by 1 person

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