Get rid of ‘to be’ with these tips

Writers rely too much on the tired verb “to be.” Here’s how to eliminate it and put more zing in your stories.

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When Hamlet moaned, “to be or not to be, that is the question,” he wasn’t actually reflecting on the dark thoughts of many overworked editors. But writers frequently use the verb “to be” more often than they should.

Part of the problem with “to be” is that it gives the reader no visual image. If I write the word “cat” or “dog,” for example, you’ll likely imagine a very specific cat or dog, with an image in your mind’s eye. But if I say “is,” what do you see? Likely, nothing.

To address overuse of “to be,” I’ve heard stories of writing teachers who issued assignments in which they forbade students to use any form of the verb “to be” or lose marks. To me, this seems too harsh. Also, it can lead to misunderstandings. When “to be” stands alongside an -ing word, it’s called a “helping verb” and it displays progressive action. The sentence “I am running,” for example, conveys a different meaning from the sentence, I run.

Still, it’s always worthwhile to examine your writing to see if you can remove any instances of the verb “to be” and make your text more visually interesting to your readers. Here are seven tips:

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