“To be,” Considered: Another Editing Tip

Improving writing, beginning with sentence structure:

When taking that second or third pass at revising your piece of writing, consider the pace of the language. Extra words and “dead language” slow it down, but you must also look closely at sentence structure.

For example, I just edited the last two sentences based on my use of the “to be” verb. It used to read, “… When it comes to taking that second or third pass at revising your piece of writing, it’s time to consider the pace of the language. Extra words and “dead language” slow it down, but it’s also important to look at sentence structure.”

I used the verb “to be” twice with “it’s time to consider,” and “it’s also important.” That’s fine for a first draft in which I’m setting down my ideas and thinking on the page, but the new version is much snappier and more confident, no?

“To be” is not to be…

One of my treasured teachers from my MFA graduate school days underlined uses of the verb “to be” so we could really think about whether or not they were necessary. Most of the time, they weren’t, and the poem benefitted from their absence.

Removing the verb “to be” creates a first step for better, more engaging words in the sentence, and further development of the image:

“There was a robin sitting the tree.”

“A robin sat in the tree.”

“A robin rested its red belly on the branch.”

Etcetera.

The next step:

The presence of “There was” places a lead ball at the beginning of the sentence that drags it down, both with the “there was” and also with the subsequent gerund “sitting.” Removing it forced me to rebuild the sentence and reexamine the image with more sharpness and specificity.

“Revise” means to see again, and every writer in every genre should take a series of passes over the work, each with a specific focus. If one of these passes prioritizes parsing out the “to be” moments, the work will come out significantly stronger on the other side.

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