Quick Tip: Not To Be
We’d all like to think that our thoughts transfer from our brains to the keyboard in precise, punchy, perfect prose — but anything we write benefits from a once-over (or twice, or thrice-over). When editing, we clarify specific sentences and hone our overall message.
A key step in editing eliminates unnecessary words. Unnecessary words drag your writing down; since they don’t contribute to your message, they throw a roadblock between your thoughts and the reader. Finding and nixing them moves readers from “Hmm, this seems interesting!” to “Genius!” that much faster. One simple way to do this? Vigilance against weak “be” verbs.
First off, credit where credit’s due: this excellent tip comes courtesy of Marcia Riefer Johnson, a Jill-of-all-trades writer I had the pleasure of hearing at a conference earlier this year (here’s her talk, if you’re interested). She highlighted common ways we waste words, and her focus on losing “to be” constructions stuck with me. That means looking out for all its iterations — be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, have been, could be, will be — and thinking about crisper, more descriptive ways of phrasing.
(I just wrote the last sentence as “That means being on the lookout for all its iterations,” before my inner Marcia kicked in. What did “being on the lookout” add? Nothing but a few unnecessary words, so out they go.)
Watching out for “to be” verbs kills two bad-habit birds:
First, it helps you ferret out the passive voice. We all try to avoid it; we all use it anyway. ”The cake was put into the oven.” “Everyone had been lined up, and the photo was taken.” Watch for passive constructions, and make them deliberate stylistic choices rather than careless writing.
Second, it highlights opportunities to write more clearly and directly, whether by shedding extra words…
First draft: ”Every Friday, Ellie asks me about being able to stay out past midnight.”
Better edit: “Every Friday, Ellie asks to stay out past midnight.”
First draft: “I’ll be able to finish the recipe once I have the garlic.”
Better edit: “I can finish the recipe”
Even better edit: “I’ll finish the recipe.”
…or by saying what you mean.
First draft: “The movie was actually better than the book.”
Better edit: “The movie actually developed the characters in a engrossing way by filling in their backstories.” Don’t just say something “was X” — describe how it was. Get right into the meat.
In the months since hearing Marcia speak, I’m alert to ways I weaken my own writing with unnecessary words. Her presentation collects a list of red-flag words — worth a skim, if not more — but picking out weak and useless “to be” verbs gives you the most bang for your editing buck.
Do you have particular things you look for in the editing process, or writing foibles you’re working to correct?