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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How to Eliminate Being Verbs from Your Writing

It is really hard to eliminate all the being verbs that are in our writing. Teachers, editors, and others are constantly telling us that we must if we are to improve our writing, but it is so hard.

I wrote that first paragraph intentionally including as many being verbs as I could. After a while, it becomes second nature to remove them before they appear on the page, at least much of the time. So if you fear this problem will forever plague you, hope exists. It will get easier. In fact, writing all those being verbs mentally hurt.

The second paragraph, while all true, contains no being verbs save for the word “being” in the noun “being verbs.” Did my brain want to put them in? Sure. But I wanted to demonstrate their lack. However, for all I’ve practiced eliminating them for some time now, they remain a part of language and occasionally creep in.

First of all, being verbs are not evil incarnate as we could easily make them. After all, something this invasive and difficult to eradicate surely qualifies as a plague, right? No. A being verb is a word like any other. They have their place and uses, but like everything else, use them in moderation.

So what’s the big deal anyway? Why do we need to eliminate as many being verbs as possible?

First of all, being verbs lead to repetitiveness. Let me give an example. Let’s describe the weather where I am right now.

It is hot. The air is so dry it makes it hard to breathe sometimes. The sun is bright and glaring and unpleasant. It is especially easy to burn, and sunscreen only lasts so long. Clouds are occasionally in the sky. It is rare for them to look like they will actually grace us with a drop of rain. Some believe that it is a weather pattern that will linger for a long time.

So what’s the problem with all that? Of the 7 sentences, 3 begin with “it is,” 6 use “is” as the verb and 1 uses “are.” How boring. On top of that, little variation exists in sentence structure. Even though the subject of each sentence differs, any interesting information about them gets lost in the repetitiveness. Nothing compels, and little ignites the senses even though I describe an unpleasant weather situation.

Which leads us to the second major reason being verbs cripple writing: they sap description of its creative and scintillating power. When you must avoid using being verbs, only more unique and thus more interesting turns of phrase remain.

But how on earth do you eliminate the pesky little, creativity-sapping beasts? Everyone says they must go but few tell you how.

First, don’t look at your whole work, whether research paper or novel. Fixing this issue requires focusing on a sentence level, and if you allow it to become more than that, you will likely overwhelm yourself. So forget about everything else you wrote. Just look at one sentence at a time. Put the sentence in a separate document if you want and play with it alone before you return it to its proper place in the larger work.

Depending on the individual use of each being verb, you will need to access a different technique. Here are some of the most common.

Choose a different verb. Sometimes, thinking of a different verb solves all your problems and adds new levels of rich diction to your sentence. Let’s look at an example from my earlier description of the weather. It is hot. Boring. What other words can we associate with heat? The first that comes to my mind is sizzle. So let’s see if this sounds better. Heat sizzles in the air. It’s more evocative, touches the senses more uniquely, and eliminates the pesky word “it.”

Combine sentences. This works well going into the next sentence, but I’ll explain that in a moment. Sometimes, in our efforts to cover every detail, we tend to make lists of them rather than combining them in more effective and evocative ways. When I first wrote this paragraph about the weather, my brain supplied the basics about its current characteristics: hot, dry, hard to breathe, bright, sunburn, and clouds that refuse to drop rain. Thus, my description reflects the list form.

But returning to our first two sentences, we have a perfect example of how to combine sentences and ideas to eliminate being verbs. The original reads, It is hot. The air is so dry it makes it hard to breathe sometimes. Now, using our verb sizzle, let’s combine them. Heat sizzles in the dry air, making it hard to breathe. Better?

Use a different noun and do not describe its state of being. Rather, describe its action. The sun is bright and glaring and unpleasant. Okay, so I tried to improve the sentence originally with the use of three adjectives, but honestly, they fail to improve the sentence much. So let’s enact our newest technique. We still want to describe the character of the sun, but in this case, we can use a related subject with more active potential: sunlight. Add an active verb, and let’s see what we come up with. Sunlight beats down with glaring force that singes the eyes and skin. Notice here that I employed multiple techniques. I changed the noun, made the sentence that of action rather than a state of being, replaced the verb, combined sentences and ideas (Notice that by including the reference to singeing, I segue into the problem of sunburn and the temporary protection of sunscreen.), and described the effect of sunlight.

Describing the effects creates far more interesting material than simply intoning its static state. You will find this enriches and layers your words. It also opens up potential avenues of description previously unthought-of.

Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases. Take the last sentence as an example. Some believe that it is a weather pattern that will linger for a long time. 5 of the 15 words are unnecessary. That’s 1/3rd of the sentence. Some believe this weather pattern will linger a long time.

So let’s use these techniques to clean up the rest of the original paragraph and see if we come up with something more powerful.

Original paragraph: It is hot. The air is so dry it makes it hard to breathe sometimes. The sun is bright and glaring and unpleasant. It is especially easy to burn, and sunscreen only lasts so long. Clouds are occasionally in the sky. It is rare for them to look like they will actually grace us with a drop of rain. Some believe that it is a weather pattern that will linger for a long time.

Paragraph with being verbs revised out using above techniques: Heat sizzles in the dry air, making it hard to breathe. Sunlight beats down with glaring force that singes the eyes and skin. A liberal layer of sunscreen shields only so long. The occasional clouds taunt with unfulfilled promises of rain, and no drop falls to sate the thirsty earth. Some believe this weather pattern will linger a long time.

Certainly, more edits could improve this paragraph further, but already it packs a greater punch than the original laden with being verbs.

Try these techniques with your writing. They will take practice, but over time, each will become easier and instead of feeling like turning your bones inside out will open up new and exciting possibilities of phrasing. Before you know it, your brain will correct for many being verbs as you write instead of forcing you to deal with an eruption of them in editing.

Here’s a complete list of being verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being.

Are there any other techniques that you use to eliminate being verbs? What are they? What other technical issues do you struggle with in writing?

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