“William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, proclaims, ‘Verbs are the most important of all your tools.’ Amen to that. Verbs give us the action, and well-chosen verbs give us the flavor of that action. Although we can’t banish weak verbs entirely, we can strengthen our sentences tremendously by watching out for six typical be-verb usages and substituting stronger choices when possible.” Gail Radley
Be-verbs: Is, are, was, were. They’re familiar, easy to reach for, and BORING. As author and writing coach Gail Radley* notes in her lively story, “Not to be: Rooting out lifeless be verbs,” (The Writer, October 2017), stronger word choices enliven our work. Her tips:
Lose “lazy” verbs — “The first sentence in this story [Revision is best done in steps:] illustrates the problem. The be verb, usually the first that comes to mind, acts as the main verb of the sentence. Often we simply plunk it down without giving it much thought. Serviceable and sometimes necessary, it doesn’t add any additional meaning.” Make stronger choices up front.
Use hidden “super verbs” — “Sometimes perfectly strong, vibrant verbs morph into nouns and an is, are, was, or were steps into their place,” Gail points out. Example: His description is good vs. He describes it well. Making the “hidden” verb the main verb in a sentence can energize it.
Dump there is — Enlist your computer’s Find function to locate and “root out there is/are and it is,” advises Gail. “Those subject delayers push the grammatical subject further down in the sentence.” Example: it was interesting to hear about his golf experiences vs. his golf experiences interested me.
Avoid the -ing trap — Using -ing verbs for actions or states can weaken a sentence, “the trouble being that it requires that helping be verb, as in These ideas are misleading children. Notice how much stronger it is simply to say These ideas mislead children — and shorter, too.
Dump who pronouns: Relative pronouns — who, which, that — “are often paired with be verbs and can frequently be dropped.” Example: I was talking to a young man who is a Berklee graduate vs. I talked to a young Berklee graduate.
Embrace the active voice — The sixth offender: Using the passive voice, which weakens action because instead of doing things, your characters have things done to them. Example: Kate hit the ball through the window vs. The ball is hit through the window.
Powerful advice for more powerful prose — write on!