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A verb can either do something or be something. Which engages the reader more? Doing something, of course. Now, those "be" verbs exist because they serve a useful purpose in communication. The trouble is that writers tend to overuse them when they are struggling with what they want to say. Often, be's will mask the action, dulling the message. So, swat those be's and employ some dynamic verbs instead.
Writing that relies heavily on be verbs can sound choppy, amateurish, and lacking in substance – much like a school report. "Hawaii is the 50th state in the United States. It was annexed in 1958. There are eight major islands and many minor islands that make up Hawaiian island group. Tourism is a large part of the Hawaiian economy." What a shame to make such a beautiful state into a snoozefest.
Let's try that again: "Hawaii, the 50th state, joined the U.S. in 1958. Eight major islands and 124 islets make up the island group. Balmy weather year-round, exquisite beaches, and active volcanoes draw tourists from around the world." The second passage contains the same amount of words, but it tells the reader much more, and in a more interesting way. How? By eliminating the verb "to be."
Try this sentence: "The new copiers are having a positive effect on our productivity." This sentence is OK, but it's bland. What does it mean? What are the copiers doing? Is there a strong verb that means the same thing as "having a positive effect on"? Yes – how about "improve"? "The new copiers improve our productivity." Now that's a strong, clear, concise sentence.
Sometimes the verb "to be" signals a passive voice sentence. This is a sentence in which the performer of the action is hidden in the back of the sentence. Notice who performs the action in this sentence: "The new packaging design was created by David and his team." Who has created the design? David and his team. So, "David and his team" should be the subject of the sentence, not stuck in a prepositional phrase at the tail end of it. The active voice version reads more smoothly: "David and his team created the new marketing design."
If you want to give recognition to David and his team, phrase the message with them in the lead. Ah, but what if the packaging design is the more important element of the sentence? Then, the passive voice is acceptable. Most of the time, though, passive voice drags out the message, hiding both the doer and the action.
Let's try another example. "The writers were encouraged by several presenters to submit their best work." The verb in this sentence is "were encouraged." Who were encouraging writers? The presenters. So, they will become the subject of the new and improved sentence: "Several presenters encouraged the writers to submit their best work."
Here's your homework. Take a piece that you've written, but you're having a problem getting published. Circle all the "to be" verbs – is, are, was, were – and any prepositional phrases that go with them. Now for the fun part: find the right action verbs to replace those weak ones. Use bold and daring verbs. Don't be afraid to revise whole sections if the writing needs it.
When you swat those pesky be's, you'll reward yourself with stronger messages.
Debra Weaver currently teaches communication arts for high school students and communication topics for adult seminar participants. Her writing appears in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. She has begun her latest project, launching a group coaching program for aspiring writers.
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