The verb “to be” is undeniably handy. We couldn’t be without it. (Heh.) Unfortunately, “to be” lacks motion. For forward momentum in writing, we need to look elsewhere. Of course, the verb “to be” will always have a place and often we can’t avoid it. (Except that often we can. In the preceding sentence I originally wrote “often it can’t be avoided”—and yet avoid it I did.)
“He was short. He was angry. He was combing his hair. As he was crossing the room he was thinking of her.”
Not only do all of these uses of “to be” create an air of passivity, they also “tell” the reader instead of showing her the stature of the character, his anger, and his action. The passive verbs also cause us to use extra words. Better word choice and stronger verbs have the added benefit of tightening our prose.
When I make this point in the classroom I usually share this excerpt from “Hands,” the chapter in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio that introduces the character Wing Biddlebaum:
Upon the half-decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down. Across a long field that had been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds, he could see the public highway along which went a wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in a blue shirt leaped from the wagon and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens, who screamed and protested shrilly. The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun. Over the long field came a thin girlish voice. “Oh, you Wing Biddlebaum, comb your hair, it’s falling into your eyes,” commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.
Wing Biddlebaum, forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years. Among all the people of Winesburg but one had come close to him. With George Willard, son of Tom Willard, the proprietor of the New Willard House, he had formed something like a friendship. George Willard was the reporter on the Winesburg Eagle and sometimes in the evenings he walked out along the highway to Wing Biddlebaum’s house. Now as the old man walked up and down on the veranda, his hands moving nervously about, he was hoping that George Willard would come and spend the evening with him. After the wagon containing the berry pickers had passed, he went across the field through the tall mustard weeds and climbing a rail fence peered anxiously along the road to the town. For a moment he stood thus, rubbing his hands together and looking up and down the road, and then, fear overcoming him, ran back to walk again upon the porch on his own house.
In this excerpt Anderson does use “to be” a couple of times, but mostly he gives us tight prose and active verbs that put the reader right there on the porch with Biddlebaum.
Give it a try. Take a paragraph from one of your stories and eliminate as many instances of “to be” as you can.
[By the way, I’m aware of the problem with the illustration I found on the Internet. Shakespeare friends, please forgive me.]