To Be Verb Phobia

Oh, those to be verbs. They have such a bad reputation. They make your sentences passive is the usual battle cry against their use.  Just which verbs are these? The usual suspects: is, am, are, was, were, been, be, being. According so some experts, you can never use these verbs in your writing, and some people are taking that advice far too seriously.

Far too many authors now are substituting other words in place of the to be verb. Instead of “She was angry and paced back and forth.” we’re seeing “She stood angry and paced back and forth.” Or there might be a “He laid in the bed.” instead of “He was lying in the bed.”

Here’s a big secret. These words you’re substituting for a to be verb, so you don’t use one because it makes the sentence passive, are confusing your readers. That’s right. Your reader doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say as you’re studiously working to find other words to use instead of the eight criminals of passivity.

The truth is that to be verbs can be passive, if the sentence is constructed poorly. Any word can be passive if your sentence is constructed poorly. As authors, our main job is to show the story to the reader. That is first and foremost before any other rule. Even if it means you need to use the occasional to be verb to get the message across. A word in and of itself cannot be passive. It is you, the author, who makes it that way when you construct your sentence.

How do you avoid passive sentences?

This is part of your job as an author. When you’re writing your first draft, don’t worry about passive sentences. Don’t worry about to be verbs. Get the story into electronic bytes. There will be plenty of time later to clean up those tricky parts. Your most important job once you start a new book is to get the story committed to a document, so you can come back once you’ve completed writing it and do the first round of self-editing.

Your second job is to learn when to ignore advice from writing gurus. Remember, a writing guru is just like you. They’re struggling to get the job done, convincing you what’s right and wrong in your writing, so they can have people keep coming back to their website or blog. If you take their advice and later learn it was wrong, how much work will you have to do in order to correct your book?

About the K.C. Sprayberry

Born and raised in Southern California’s Los Angeles basin, K.C. Sprayberry spent years traveling the United States and Europe while in the Air Force before settling in northwest Georgia. A new empty nester with her husband of more than twenty years, she spends her days figuring out new ways to torment her characters and coming up with innovative tales from the South and beyond.

She’s a multi-genre author who comes up with ideas from the strangest sources. Those who know her best will tell you that nothing is safe or sacred when she is observing real life. In fact, she considers any situation she witnesses as fair game when plotting a new story.

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Cyn said…
One easy way to determine active from passive is to think about the tone. Verbs in active voice tend to sound like they have the courage of their convictions, and they're going to act NOW! Verbs in passive voice tend to be less self-assured; they can sound weak, wimpy, and even self-doubting.Think about what you're trying to convey to your reader.

Then there is the problem of Nouns Which Became Verbs Too. The English language is a word geneticist's nightmare, as it has an ingrown tendency to mutate all over the place. "I'll Tweet you" is a tiny example of that. Again, make your context clear to your reader.
Martin Kloess said…
Thanks for the valuable information