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.

Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well. (Photo by Mister_Jack)

Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well. (Photo by Mister_Jack)

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?

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  1. I had an entire class on this in college and loved it! The professor said so much of our writing careers (at school anyways) is to write X amount of words or pages and we end up with filler. Cut the fluff! Thanks for this reminder and great examples.


  2. I need to read this article every day because I add in words that don’t need to be in there. Very impressive post and informative.


  3. I am bad at this. But then I like reading things like this. I am just gifted in an odd manner. My favorite author writes this way. It is me, and it is hard to not say, “whatever” to this. I guess this is why I love twitter and have chosen that type of theme for my blog. this way I stick with short posts. I also do pictures a lot. By themselves. This keeps me focused and not tempted to write like a valley girl.


  4. Suggest “Best” edit: “Every Friday, Ellie asks permission to stay out past midnight.” The “Better” edit suggests that Ellie wants ME to stay out past midnight.


  5. One favorite prompt I offer my groups is to write in their journals without using the verb ‘to be.’ For a week. Harder than you’d think! And definitely, active verbs (rather than adverb + verb) ramps up the meaning right away. Thanks for the post!!


  6. The “better” edit in the first example introduces ambiguity: it could mean either Ellie seeks permission to stay out, or Ellie asks that the speaker stay out.


  7. I worked for years in human resources for a veritable slum-lord of a property management company. There I wrote the employee handbook and all correspondence related to worker injury. I mastered the art of passive writing so that I could compose a full page response to a request for payment that said nothing would be done, but the reader was none the wiser.
    This post and the link to Marcia’s talk will go a long way to put my writing on the straight and narrow path.

    PS have tried to participate in the Daily Post. Is it possible to pingback from a site? I am really new to this. Would it be better to create a .com site?


  8. This is great advice. One thing that drives me nuts as a former editor (well, in truth, the editor never leaves your inner voice), is the fact that so many blogs are not carefully read, at least once or twice before posted. Obviously, an editor for our blogs is a luxury most of us don’t have, but we may and should self-edit. I actually will read my blogs out loud once or twice and catch unnecessary words or errors this way. It’s worth the time. (Now, my comments are another story altogether — those could use some better proofreading.)


  9. Great tips, thank you! I edit my posts heavily, often putting what I thought was the beginning at the end and deleting a bunch. I use the word count as a guide. If I can’t say it between 500-700 words, something’s wrong. Not all bloggers need to do that, but I make a point to keep my posts as succinct as possible. No fat, no fluff.


  10. I think I use the passive voice too much as well. In fact, I edited my latest post a couple of times in an attempt to weed out the passive. As a student of Linguistics (and an aspiring Linguistics professor) I should pay more attention to this! Thanks for the link to Marcia’s talk. I’ll check it out later when I have time.


  11. Michelle,

    Delighted to hear that my preso at the “Write the Docs” conference has made a difference for you. I’ll give this talk again in a few hours–you’ve bolstered my enthusiasm for the usefulness of this one “little” tip: Bust be-verbs!

    Your post’s strong, engaging verbs serve as an example of the payoff.

    My original blog post on this topic, which you link to (thanks), represents a short, early version of the full chapter–”To Be or Not To Be”–in my new book, “Word Up!” Anyone can download that chapter for free on my Excerpts page: