Not to Be

During the course of a line edit, one of the most common suggestions I make is changing a variant of the word “is” into an active verb. While “there is” and “it is” are obvious culprits in passive sentence construction, I’d like to point out a few other common ways this static verb is used.

The first tip-off is the word “now.” I won’t bother bemoaning the fallacy of using this word in prose written in the past tense, as most novels are. I will merely point out that “is now” usually is a shortcut for describing how a character got from there to here. Here’s an example: “I was now at an altitude of over thirteen thousand feet.”

Think about that: could a person’s heroic efforts to climb so high possibly be written in a more boring fashion? How about the scratching of rock, the grunting, and the like? At the very least, the verb could become active: “I had climbed to an altitude of over thirteen thousand feet.”

A second flag is the use of “it is” related to personal effort. The “it” in this case is the author’s comment on a character. Let’s take: “It had been an enormous struggle filled with doubt.” This is an inert lump of a sentence. In so many of these cases you can merely change the “it” to “I” and substitute an active verb: “I had overcome an enormous struggle filled with doubt.”

A third marker is the use of the “to be” verb twice in a sentence. This often occurs when an author thinks of one quality a character possesses and then tacks on another, e.g.: “With reddish blond hair, her name was Barbara, and she was an intensive care unit nurse.” Right away I’m thinking: reduce one of the clauses to a phrase; get rid of that second “was.” A good way to do that is invert the order of the sentence: “Barbara was an intensive care unit nurse with reddish blond hair.”
One primary benefit of stopping to examine passive construction is giving yourself the opportunity to think more deeply about what you want to accomplish in that sentence. How many interesting verbs could be linked with “an enormous struggle filled with doubt”? You start probing, you add richness. Do it 100 times, and guess what? The reader is a big winner.

Exercise: I should clarify that a form of “to be” can be used as a helper verb in a progressive sentence. That means that the action in the sentence is ongoing. “She was helping me lower the fire-escape stairs.” That’s not passive. “Was” is not the main verb. When you’re trying to trim usage of “to be,” the sign to look for here is the “-ing” at the end of the verb following it.

“I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”
—Stephen King

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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