To Be Or Not To Be

Hamlet-and-skull-on-stampOne of the most common pieces of advice I hear about editing is to go through your manuscript and edit out every use of the verb to be (is, was, were, etc.) For the most part I agree. Passive verbs are never a good thing and adjectives are rarely a good thing. I started editing this month with over 1,000 uses of was in my 280 pages. That means I used the word was on average more than three times per page. This is obviously too many, but somehow when they are my was’s its harder to cut them.

After two weeks, I’m down to about 750. I know this number needs to get smaller. However, I’ve also come to believe that making a sentence more complicated just to get rid of a was isn’t the right course of action either. She appeared have hair that was blond is a worse sentence (in my opinion) than She was blond. It seems like there are times when the right word to use is was … not seemed or looked or could have been. I don’t know though … maybe I’m just making up delusions so I don’t have to do the hard work of diminishing the next 800 forms of to be. If I don’t finish that, I’ll never have to move on to all the uses of actually, obviously, and apparently. I’ll also never have to face the fact that I’ve used the word glad 38 times even though I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say the word in real life.

I should get back to editing. Do you have any words you hate editing out of your writing? Or if there are words that particularly bother you when reading a book?

9 thoughts on “To Be Or Not To Be

  1. Oh, gosh, yes, passive tense has been irritating me so much recently. (and another variant of ‘to be’ right there)
    Not to mention that ‘she appeared to have hair that was blond’ is still ‘She…was blond’, thereby retaining that offensive ‘was’!
    750 uses in 280 pages doesn’t sound that bad to me (bearing in mind how amateur I am), though. I congratulate you for eliminating 250 instances, in any case! That must’ve been no mean feat. Good luck with the remaining 750, or as many of them as can be dealt with.
    I’m always editing out ‘I think’, ‘I suppose’, ‘I expect’ and all their sisters. Unnecessary to an already-bloated wordcount!
    Reading-wise, the phrase ‘of course’ really bugs me if overused.
    Best wishes for your editing 🙂

  2. Have you ever read E. B. Whites’ The Elements of Style. It’s a thin book, but packed full of great writing tips. Back in the dark ages when I had my first technical writing job, we issued a copy to every writer. I still read through my copy.

  3. It took almost an hour to edit the word “just” out of my manuscript. “Look” is another word I overuse, as is “suddenly.” So, I feel your pain!

  4. Passive verbs are a problem, for sure, but I can’t escape being so self-centered in any of my writing. I (see, I’m doing it!) abuse the “I” subject. Grrr. The contemplation of this very sentence took me a good 30 seconds to straighten out just so I could avoid beginning with “I”. But don’t worry, your writing (here) reads smoothly and quickly and I love the humor underlying the words. You’ve got a great point about glad (I LOL’d at that one). P.S. Love this image of Tennant – TENnant is and always will be my favorite Doctor!

    1. I think using the first person can be good in a lot of forms of writing … but maybe I’m just saying that because I like to talk about myself too. Thanks for your kind words! I’m GLAD you commented.

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