Writing Advice Myth: Eliminating ‘to be’ Verbs

Sophie Playle

There’s a piece of writing advice floating around out there that recommends authors comb through their writing cutting out the word ‘was’ – or any form of the verb ‘to be’.

In some cases, this is good advice. But in other cases, it causes writers to use the wrong tense.

When to delete ‘to be’ verbs

Reason 1: To turn the passive voice into the active voice

The passive voice is not something to be avoided at all costs. It has its place. I just used it at the start of this paragraph, for instance, because:

a) I wanted the focus of the statement to be on the object of the sentence (the passive voice)
b) it flows naturally in this context.

The passive voice is when the subject of the sentence (usually the person doing the action) is hidden – they’re not noted in the sentence.

Who is doing the lack of avoiding in the first sentence of this section? Presumably you, the person reading this blog post. If I rewrote the sentence in the active voice, it would result in something like: ‘You should not avoid the passive voice at all costs.’

Notice how this rewritten version does away with the verb ‘to be’?

Common writing advice is to avoid the passive voice. One way of doing that is to eliminate instances of the verb ‘to be’ (including its past-tense version ‘was’).

So yes, you can delete ‘to be’ verbs (including ‘was’) from a piece of writing if you want to change it from the passive to the active voice, but make this decision on a case-by-case basis.

Reason 2: To improve/tighten a sentence by shifting the focus to a more interesting verb

While writing, ‘was’ is often the easiest verb for authors to reach for.

But while editing, you’ll often be able to see how another word in the sentence could take on all the work instead.

You’ll find that the ‘to be’ verb could be replaced with something much more specific and descriptive.

Here are a few examples:

Original: ‘Snow was blanketing the ground.’
Edit: ‘Snow blanketed the ground.’

Original: ‘There is no method that would work in this case.’
Edit: ‘No method would work in this case.’

Original: ‘The dragon was in the field.’
Edit: ‘The dragon lounged in the field.’

A word of caution, though. If you’re editing a client’s manuscript and want to make a change like that last one, where you’re inserting a whole new verb, flag it up for the author to check – otherwise you’ll be overstepping your role as editor and entering the realm of co-authoring.

When NOT to delete ‘to be’ verbs

When the past continuous tense is needed

Take another look at the first example above.

Original: ‘Snow was blanketing the ground.’
Edit: ‘Snow blanketed the ground.’

This edit actually changes the tense of the sentence.

And there’s a nuance between the past continuous and the past tense that shouldn’t be ignored.

The past continuous should be used when the action is still ongoing. Even though it’s in the past, it has not been completed.

When reading ‘Snow was blanketing the ground’ I might assume it’s still snowing. The snow is continuing to blanket the ground.

When reading ‘Snow blanketed the ground’ I might assume it has stopped snowing. The snow has finished its process of forming a blanket.

Perhaps you think the verb ‘was’ still makes that first sentence read a little clunky. If so, an alternative way of removing ‘was’ while suggesting the past continuous is to use two verbs, one in the past and one in the present.

Alternative edit: ‘Snow fell, blanketing the ground.’

Here, it’s clear that the snow is still falling, but it does away with that ‘to be’ verb, providing the utmost specificity to a sentence.

Here are some more examples.

Original: ‘She was resting.’
Alternative: ‘She rested, snoring softly.’

Original: ‘They were dancing to the music.’
Alternative: ‘They danced, moving to the music.’

Of course, you should be careful not to overuse any kind of sentence structure, otherwise you risk the writing becoming repetitive in its rhythm.

To look at it a different way …

It’s a common piece of writing advice to get rid of all ‘to be’ verb forms (e.g. ‘was’) because it indicates a lack of creativity and specificity in the verb choice.

However, this is only true when ‘was’ is used as the only verb, e.g. ‘He was at the bar.’ Here, the only thing happening (according to the verb ‘was’) is existence. Change the verb to something more interesting/specific and you might get: ‘He waited at the bar.’

But now the tense needs attention, because this indicates that the waiting has ended; it’s all in the past. If he is still waiting at the bar, the past continuous tense more clearly indicates this – and the past continuous requires the use of ‘was’: ‘He was waiting at the bar.’

So, yes, think about where ‘was’ and the variations of the verb ‘to be’ crop up in a piece of writing, but don’t assume all instances need editing out!

Learn more about the nuances of professional editing by taking an online course.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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