Posts Tagged to be

The “Was” That Was

Every now and then I run across, or am asked about, the admonition that new writers learn, to limit the use of “to be” verbs in their writing.  Instead of writing, “he is/was,” or “they are/were,” instructors say, “Try something else.”  It’s good advice, as having a bunch of “was” or “were” in one paragraph or even one sentence can be trying to the reader.  Many beginning writers, myself included, have fallen into the trap of using “to be” verbs too much without realizing it.  But replacing “was” or “were” (let’s assume here for the sake of simplicity, that you write, like so many of us do, in the past tense) can be tricky.  Generally, you can’t simply substitute another verb for the “to be” verb, and keep the sentence logical and meaningful.  How does one get out of the trap of overusing “to be?”  Here’s one approach to this problem that has worked for me.

To be brutally honest, in most cases you’ll have to recast the sentence.  That sounds time-consuming, but the advantage of recasting the sentence is that it can lead to room to add more detail than with the “to be” verb in it.  It can even lead to a sentence that will have more detail in it than two sentences, but without ending up with a run-on sentence where two sentences are joined with “and” or some such conjunction.

Take the sentence, “He was six-feet tall with a physique like a linebacker.”  That’s okay, but it can be improved by removing the weak verb “was” and rewriting the sentence and adding detail.  “His physique, like that of a linebacker, gave him a youthful look well below his actual age of ninety-seven.”  Not two sentences, and not a run-on sentence.

Another example:  Instead of “The town was situated on a hill overlooking the bay.” write:  “The town, situated on a hill overlooking the bay, served as a beacon for mariners trying the find the narrow inlet.”  Again, more detail, yet the same emphasis is still there.

Remember this:  “It was a dark and stormy night”?  This can be improved by eliminating the “was” and adding more detail.  “The storm came up quickly during the night, lashing the shore with seventy-mile-an-hour winds that blew the shutters on the old house onto the beach.”  Detail, detail.

This advice certainly isn’t meant to be all-consuming.  A few “was/were” verbs aren’t going to consign your writing to the trash bin, but too many can make it difficult to read.  Sometimes a few simple sentences with “was/were” are appropriate.  But constantly being told “he was . . .”  “she was . . .” and so on, gets tiring and it indicates a serious lack of imagination as well as laziness and even sloppiness on the part of the writer.  Take the time to do it not just “right”, but well.

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