A fundamental rule of style is that you should avoid the verb “to be,” preferring instead strong, descriptive verbs that show, rather than tell.
As an example, instead of writing, “The light was bright,” you should prefer, “The light blinded her as a hot-white flame,” or some such. So every time you use am, is, are, was, were, be, been, or being, that’s a signal that you need to rephrase…
As it turns out, this common rule of thumb oversimplifies the issue, sometimes to the point that confusion can result.
No less a writer than Holly Lisle gives a misleading example, on her web page about one-pass manuscript revision:
Is your scene full of weak words? How many times have you used is, was, or were?… Eliminate forms of the verb “to be” wherever you find them, rewriting the sentence with a stronger verb. “It was raining,” becomes “The rain slashed down, tearing up the gardens and ripping leaves from the trees.”
But the verb in that sentence is not the verb “to be”!
When “To Be” Is Not “To Be”
Let’s consider Holly’s example: “It was raining.” I agree that this is a weak sentence. But the verb in the sentence is “to rain,” not “to be.” The word combination “was raining” is what linguists and grammarians call the “progressive form” of the verb. As a writer, you don’t need to know so much about grammar. But you do have to be careful not to be fooled by the word “was” sandwiched in there.
If you want proof, try rephrasing the example thusly: “It rained.” No more “was.” That’s still a weak sentence. In fact, it’s even weaker than before, because now instead of showing the rain as an ongoing activity, it merely states, for the record, that “it rained.”
The problem in this example isn’t the word “was.” The problem is that “to rain” is simply a weak, generic verb. And the tip-off that you’re using a weak, generic verb is the indefinite “it.” When we say, “It rained,” what exactly is “it”? The word “it” in that sentence refers to nothing in particular, a clue that you’re speaking in generalities rather than describing specifics.
So what is “it”? “It” is the “the rain.” And what did the rain do? “The rain fell.” Better. But can we be even more descriptive than that? Can we invoke more of the senses? “The rain slashed down, tearing up the gardens and ripping leaves from the trees.” This invokes the sense of sight and sound, and vividly describes the violence of the storm.
(By the way, that’s still a poor sentence to have in your story, unless it actually has something to do with the story. But at least it’s much stronger now, more descriptive.)
And as a final example, what if we worked on it further:
Gregory gazed out the window. The rain was slashing through the atmosphere, tearing up the gardens and ripping leaves from the trees. “We’d better stay inside,” he said, “for now, at least.”
I added the word “was” back into the sentence. But rather than weakening the sentence, it brought the scene to life, showing it as ongoing action, happening right before Gregory’s eyes.
Watching Out for “To Be”
I look for three situations in particular, in which you have to watch out for the verb “to be”:
With a noun as the predicate. This is called a “predicate nominative.” It equates one thing with another. “The man was a giant.” In some languages, the word “was” wouldn’t even be translated, because it’s not really a verb at all. It just equates the one thing with the other. (In linguistic terms, it’s called a “copulative.”) Try instead something like: “A giant, he towered over the poor citizens of Tinyville.”
With an adjective as the predicate. “The man was tall.” Even worse. Try: “She stared up at him, wide-eyed, trying not to let his height intimidate her.”
The passive voice. This is when “to be” is used with the past participle of the verb, so that the action in the sentence is happening to the subject, rather than the subject doing the action. “He was beaten.” In this same category I also include variations, such as “He got beaten” or “He felt beaten.” (Makes him sound like he thinks he’s an egg.) You can frequently start by rephrasing: “His opponent beat him”; then at least you know who’s doing the action. And then strengthen that further. Maybe: “He lay on the ground, blood trickling from his nose, refusing to move, praying silently that his opponent would have pity and leave him for dead.”
So, the rule of thumb, watch out for the verb “to be”: it’s a valid rule. But beware of other verbs in the sentence. Sometimes “to be” occurs with another verb, which is the main verb. And sometimes, the combination is still the strongest verb that you can use. And sometimes the real problem is that you simply chose a weak verb to tell your story, rather than showing the action behind it.