As a native speaker of any language, you get to take certain things for granted, like conjugating irregular verbs. I’m not sure I was really aware of irregular verbs, never mind conjugating them, until I took French. Then, because I took English for granted, I thought those French were pretty much nuts, assigning a gender to inanimate objects and all those irregular verbs! I remember the day I learned etre, the French verb “to be.”
A lightbulb went off as I sat conjugating it: je suis, I am; tu es, you are; il/elle est, he/she is; and so on. I had never connected those little verbs, am, are, is, was, and were with a parent verb before. I had taken them for granted…until French class. To be is an awfully handy little verb. Imagine all the ideas we are able to express thanks to to be.
Those little verbs refer to a state of being and provide the subject with a sense of place in time. “I was great.” “I am great.” “I will be great.” Neat little verb, isn’t it? Really. To be is a neat verb when you are referring to a state of being.
However, (you sensed a “but” coming, didn’t you?) in your writing, you want to avoid using to be when you are referring to an action. You know, those times you have to attach a gerund to it (-ing). “He was running fast.” “He was breathing hard.” “She was scanning the crowd for the man she was to meet.”
Of course, there are times when there’s no better way to say something than with a to be + gerund construction, but in general, avoid doing so. Why?
Because the to be + gerund construction is not immediate. It lacks urgency. It sounds passive, not active. Look at this example.
Sarah was sitting on a park bench, picking at her ragged cuticles. The sun was shining across her head, falling over her shoulders, and throwing her long shadow into the grass. She was enjoying the warmth on her back, getting lost in her own thoughts, when she heard someone walking on the path behind her, approaching, then stopping…standing…right behind her. Shivers went running up and down her spine.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but you might be surprised how often I see to be + gerund constructions in my clients’ writing. Check out the rewrite.
Sarah picked at her ragged cuticles, lost in thought, oblivious to the park spread out before her. The sun warmed her back, the top of her head, and threw her long shadow into the grass at her feet. Someone with a heavy gate approached on the path behind her bench. Unlike all the other passersby, this person slowed, then stopped right behind her, blocking the sun. Sarah lifted her head as a chill ran up and down her spine.
When you avoid using to be, your writing becomes present, imminent, and in prose, that means there’s more tension. Tension is a good thing. Tension is what makes your reader sit up and think, “Yeah? Yeah? What’s going to happen next?”
I think of to be writing as early draft writing. That’s when you are telling yourself the story. See that? You are telling yourself the story. In revision, look for those constructions and cut as many as you can. Ruthlessly. In your prose, you don’t want to give the reader the sense that things are happening around your character. You want the character and the reader to be in the action, a part of it, a source of it!
Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let me know if this was helpful to you.
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