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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. “To be” is one of my foibles. And apparently using complicated words is another one. Thanks for the great article!

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  2. NICE! Of course, I’m paranoid now, adding this comment. 🙂 I teach English and write YA novels. My critique partner cautioned me about what she calls “weasel words,” words that weasel their way into our writing. My main offender is the word “just.”

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  3. I blog to put my thoughts out where I could use it as some sort of memoir. As an amateur and occassional writer, it is difficult to self criticize because I end up not posting if not trashing my work for thinking it’s not worth it. Reading this article helps, but someone to critique my compositions would be a better feedback.

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  4. I’ve been meaning to imporove my writing style so thank you for this tip – will attend to the variants of the existential verb in future. Meanwhile I admit to being addicted to adjectives – or should that be: I admit that I’m addicted?! Avoid them advises Hemingway

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  5. Some of the writers have interesting content but the wording is so long and uninteresting that you just stop reading. It’s like somebody taking to long to get to the point. They put a lot of extra words in just to make their article or post longer.

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  6. I’m new to blogging and am launching my blog to my friends in a few days. I will definitely reread everything now before I do! Thank you so much. I can’t wait to watch the entire talk!

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  7. We can all benefit from this advice. I find it difficult because much of my editing work is on engineering materials. I accept some passive voice and a lot of “to be” verbs because I have to (I can’t completely rewrite it for them…not acceptable or feasible). I’ve found that reading that material all the time has damaged my writing because that voice now seems “normal.”

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    1. Joyce, Can you put me in touch with someone at Grub Street? I’m letting writing centers know about my new book, “Word Up!,” whose first chapter (“To Be or Not To Be”) grew out of my early blog post, which Michelle points to above.

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  8. Thanks. Never had a writing course. You identified all the not-to-dos That I do soooo easily. Onward to better prose. Bless you!

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  9. Because the rest of my comment might indicate otherwise, I want to start by saying I thought this was a great post and the advice given (by the blog author and the speaker she references) are excellent pieces of advice. Almost all writers have unnecessary words aplenty in our early drafts (I know I have enough to cover several writer’s share – maybe I got Hemmingway’s extra words, darnit); sometimes we even find unnecessary paragraphs, chapters, and entire ideas! As general-purpose advice I agree wholeheartedly and reading this blog post was a pleasant reminder to be vigilant.

    However, there are a few nuances that I wanted to point out. The issues related to the post’s main thrust – “to be” verb use – are not always so clearcut. When you look for unnecessary words to eliminate, it is also a good time to think hard about EXACTLY what you are trying to say; particularly when eliminating or changing a “to be” verb/verb phrase can subtly change your meaning. To use the examples given in the post:

    >>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.”

    Depending on the context, the actual meaning of the “first” and “better” versions could be different. The first draft version *could* mean that Ellie has a curfew of midnight, and every Friday night Ellie asks to have that curfew permanently changed or invalidated (to the speaker’s apparent annoyance!). In other words, every Friday, Ellie wants to talk about this “midnight curfew rule”, possibly because it is once Friday arrives that Ellie has occasion to remember – and resent – the rule. That meaning is substantially different from the “better edit” version, which is more precisely describing the weekly act of asking to stay out past midnight (on just that night). If the context were such that my interpretation of the “first draft” sentence was correct, the “better edit” version is not communicating the same meaning at all. Obviously, in this example, it is unlikely for a misunderstanding or misinterpretation to occur; also, my lengthy treatment of how the first could mean something quite different seems like a classic case of overkill, and it is. The author of the blog was only trying to provide some tangible examples of her suggestions, and they suite that purpose just fine. But there are many situations where the _kind_ of a distinction in meaning is critical.

    In the second example it is even more apparent that the context would determine whether the “better” and “even better” versions are simply more concise (which, all things being equal, is definitely better!), or if they are actually changing the meaning. If the context is such that someone is trying to figure out what obstacles remain in the preparation of some dinner, then the “extra” information about the garlic becomes critical. The more concise versions, in this context, would not only not mean the same thing, but can be seen as disingenuous! Consider:

    >>Speaker A: Can you finish the recipe on time?
    >>Speaker B: “I’ll be able to finish the recipe once I have the garlic.”
    >>Speaker A: “Holy Fettucini Alfredo! We don’t have anymore garlic? I’ll get someone on that right away!”

    Given this context, the recommend edits might be disastrous (assuming, of course, that it’s even possible to be in a situation where the failure to acquire garlic leads to a disaster :-)).

    >>Speaker A: Can you finish the recipe on time?
    >>Speaker B: “I’ll finish the recipe.”
    >>Speaker A: “Great! I’ll leave you alone to finish safe in the knowledge that nothing stands in the way of your finishing the recipe and thereby saving the world from the Flying Spaghetti Monster from Outer Space.
    >>Speaker B: “Wait … now that you put it that way, I should probably point out that I don’t actually have any garlic and I need it too … ah, never mind; I see you’ve already left.”

    Consequently, in a noble effort to write more concisely the world ends in a noodle-ly mess. :-).

    There were a couple other minor nitpicks but my comment is already much too long and in great need of following the blogger’s advice. Again, I think the advice given and the specific suggestions made should be warmly embraced by all writers; it’s easy to claim that there are no unnecessary words in one’s writing by saying any changes to the words will change the meaning. Though this most certainly can be an issue, as I’ve described, it’s often just rationalization to get out of editing :-).

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    1. Scott,

      I’m the speaker Michelle refers to above. I’m honored that you saw enough value in this tip to give such a thoughtful reply. And what a reply–Holy Fettucini Alfredo! Yes, yes, yes. Context makes all the difference in writing decisions.

      Thanks for taking time to comment so eloquently.

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  10. I think extra words can sometimes be necessary though. It really depends on the blog and what you’re writing. For instance, in stream-of-thought-consciousness it could work because one doesn’t think in abbreviated form, so to write in that manner may not enhance the content.

    I write in character, and she talks in a chatty, run-on style, so extra words come across well on the page and helps to put across to the reader her obnoxiousness and frustration.

    Perhaps some of you will take a moment to check out a few of my posts to get an example of what I’m talking about.

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  11. For work I have to write in third person past tense. I am new to blogging and I need to improve on my writing skills. Excellent tip.

    (I will try the “to be” exercise that was mentioned earlier).

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