As Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks, “To be or not to be.” In my case, the answer is “probably neither.”
No, I’m not describing some metaphysical dilemma I’ve been going through lately but rather an editing position. As I’m going through the drafting process of my blog I’m changing a lot of sentences based primarily on their use of the verb “to be.” I’m keeping in mind the movement of E-Prime, which seeks to eliminate “to be” from the English language altogether. I won’t go into all of the details of the argument here—instead, I’ll provide a link to the Wikipedia article about it to at least give you a place to start—but the gist of the argument is that by eliminating “to be” one strengthens one’s writing.
I don’t advocate this point of view as a whole but I can see the point. As I go through my draft I find the resulting changes do make the sentences better. For example, in my first draft I wrote the sentence “It was about then that I realized how much it was in pain.” I find “I then realized how much it hurt” more desirable. Another example can be found with the phrase “it wasn’t my house” which I changed to “I didn’t live there.” Even minor touches like that one, when taken with the rest of the piece, make it much stronger.
I don’t change every single sentence. Sometimes I want to get the point across as quickly as possible and “to be” works just fine. In such cases I have difficulty trying to think of an adequate way to rewrite the sentence. I have to remind myself that I’m not a staunch proponent of E-Prime all the time. I only keep it in the back of my mind as a tool to make my writing better. Sometimes relying on old bad habits does the trick.
It is a habit at that. Like my tendency to overuse commas, when I write quickly I find using “to be” much easier than trying to find a verb that might come across as more dynamic. If you couldn’t tell by now such is the case with this blog. I try to watch myself so I don’t use “to be” too often but I’ll let it slip often when I feel its necessary. Just count the number of instances in this post alone. The real challenge is when I go through something that I’m editing. Unlike commas, I can’t simply cut the verb out of a complete sentence. “It wasn’t my house” is still preferable to “it not my house.” I suppose in that example the later version of the phrase still clearly presents the case but it makes me sound like the Hollywood version of a caveman. No, when I’m revising I have to rewrite the sentence completely in order to make it work. The problem comes with the fact that I tend to rely on “to be” more often than I should when writing quickly, and the revision process takes longer as a result.
I may not get to much revising tonight. I have other matters that came up that I want to attend to right away so I won’t have as much time as I usually do. But when I do go back to work on this draft I’ll make sure to keep an eye on “to be.”
Let’s see the first sentence of the section I plan on working on next: “If the house held an eerie silence, the basement roared with a terrifying thunder.” I think I’ll leave that one alone.