How to Defeat a Sneaky Enemy of Good Writing

One of the biggest enemies of fine writing? The verb “to be.” In all its tenses, this verb can leach the impact out of almost any sentence. It sometimes seems impossible to avoid, but you need to seek it out and destroy it with a vengeance.

Your best weapon against “to be”? Stronger, more active verbs.

Take a look at this paragraph:

My husband and I were enjoying a warm, breezy stroll. The blue sky was strewn with wisps of white, the air was crisp and tinged with the perfume of magnolia trees in bloom, and the Seine was sparkling as it flowed under the Pont des Arts.

Yikes! “To be” verbs have crept in everywhere.

While not always easy, you can remedy this “to be” overkill by rephrasing a few lines and replacing the offending verbs with more evocative ones.

See how I fixed it here:

My husband and I strolled down the Rive Gauche, enjoying the April breeze on our faces. Above us stretched an endless blue sky strewn with wisps of white. The crisp air carried the perfume of magnolia trees in bloom, and the Seine sparkled as it flowed under the Pont des Arts.

When it comes to this tricky verb, ruthless editing can transform weak writing into powerful, descriptive prose.

Comment on this article

  • John F. Tashjian

    Ms. Richardson:

    I want to thank you for this particular article about that sneaky little verb. When I tutored students at the English Writing Lab at my local community college, I noticed that, particularly with students whose first language is not English, the verb “to be” would invariably appear (more often than not, they would use it in passive voice constructions). As with you, I would always recommend using the active voice over the passive voice in such instances.

    Even as I noticed when I would speak, sometimes a form of “to be” would sneak into what I was saying. I concede that there are occasions when using “to be” is necessary (as in, for example, the verbs “to be born” and “to be able to”); however, I do try to pare my use of that verb to the barest of minimums.

    Thanks again for the article.

    John F. Tashjian

  • As an author I could not agree more. Start a sentence with a verb sounds better than, ‘Sentences sound better starting with a verb. Here is a an example from the book I wrote, ‘Jodi, The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.’

    Welcome to the 1997 New York City Marathon where 30,000 of the scrawniest bodies you have ever seen congregate to torture themselves and perform some of the unkindest acts of human sacrifice to their body. And for one day only ‘cruel and unusual, self-inflicted punishment’ is permitted. POUND the pavement with me and join me in my annual pilgrimage across the five boroughs or imagine you were fated to deliver a message in Greece in ancient times and your message had to be delivered at all costs. THRILL to the sound of your name being chanted as you become the local hero, the legend of the day on this one day only. For just this once, there is no ‘home’ or ‘away’ team and everyone is on the ‘winning’ team. PARADE around New York after the race with your mylar cape to keep you warm. RELISH your victory because it will be another year, and in some cases it will seem like a lifetime, until next year’s marathon. Be proud of your accomplishment, because for those of you who do not run, you have no idea of the mental and physical training that is involved. With that said, save a place on the podium for me and let the band herald the words of our National Anthem.

    end of paragraph.