Want to improve your writing in a flash? Like to help your copy quickly capture readers’ attention, engage them in narrative and move them through your sales funnel?
Ban the verb “to be” from your work.
Yep, this single editing secret transforms your writing into more vivid, direct, active and persuasive content.
Leave “to be or not to be” to Hamlet
Why? Because to be denotes existence, rather than action.
Think about Hamlet’s angst-ridden query, “to be, or not to be.” The neurotic Dane struggles with is-ness itself. While we enjoy watching a dramatic character grapple with existence, we don’t want readers to wrestle with our words.
And make no mistake, is, was, were, been, are and being form verbal obstacles. They sit like rocks in your writing. They force readers to slow down and lumber over and around words to understand your intention.
Offline readers sigh and toss aside your magazine article or brochure. Online, they click away from your page faster than you can say “flat writing.”
How to scan and ban to be
With practice, you’ll start to see to be forms as you draft. But in the beginning you’ll need to make a concerted effort to pinpoint these limp verb constructions. Look for them when you proofread. If you like, you can enlist the help of your desktop search function.
Just hit “Control+f” for PCs or “Command+f” for Macs to identify:
Strengthen your writing with more muscular verbs
When you find a to be form in your writing, cut it. Now reread the sentence. Has your copy lost its intention? Usually the answer is no. Instead, the edit clarifies and focuses your work.
A few examples:
Before: Sam is hitting home with the sales copy he’s writing.
After: Sam hits home with the sales copy he writes.
Before: The chicken was crossing the road to get to the other side.
After: The chicken crossed the road to get to the other side.
Sometimes in addition to axing to be constructions you’ll want to replace them with stronger, more active verbs:
Before: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind was moaning; Earth was hard as iron…
After: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan; Earth stood hard as iron…
Before: They were reading the books quickly.
After: They raced through the books.
Exceptions: When to let to be be
Don’t mistake the use of to be as adoption of the passive voice—Grammar Girl explains the difference succinctly here. Occasionally, forms of to be prove perfect:
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
“A diamond is forever.”
“This post is done.”