“To be, or not to be?” Not is usually the answer.
Eliminate the verb “to be.” This basic writing and revision tip you’ll hear all over the place, although much of the advice I’ve read is missing important points—or at least points that I consider important.
What do we mean by “to be” verbs? We mean copulative verbs, also known as “linking verbs,” that is, verbs that join two different things in the sentence and tie them together. Besides be, look for the words am, are, is, was, were, been, and being.
Why get rid of these words? Because (1) the verb is the most powerful word in your sentence, and (2) these verbs add nothing, nada, zippo, zilch, zero meaning to the sentence. A copulative merely connects other words of the sentence together, foisting on them all of the responsibility that the verb itself ought to take.
But that’s not the end of the story! Other words can also be copulatives, words like become, get, feel, and seem. For example: “She became a little girl. She got depressed. She felt sad. She seemed unable to go on.” If you’re going to write that, just be honest and say, “She was a little girl. She was depressed. She was sad. She was unable to go on.” It’ll be just as boring.
So what do you do when you discover a “to be” verb? Here are 7 things you can look at to deal with them.
Be sure you actually need to get rid of it. In some sentences, copulatives can serve as helping verbs, which help another verb by adding to its meaning, or even as full verbs on their own. You may want to keep these around, especially in two specific cases: (a) When to be means “to exist.” For example, “I think; therefore, I am.” (b) When to be stands alongside an -ing verb. This is called the durative present. For example, “The earth is rumbling,” showing the action as it is happening rather than simply as a fact (“The earth rumbles.”)
Change passive voice into active voice. An example of the passive voice: “We were transported to the camp.” In the passive voice, the action happens to the subject of the sentence, and often passive voice hides who it is that does the action. Who transported us to the camp? The sentence doesn’t say. In the passive voice, the “to be” verb helps the main verb, but not in the same way as in the durative present above. Usually, you want to rephrase passive voice sentences into active voice: “The guards transported us to the camp.”
Scratch out the whole sentence or clause. Sometimes, writers use the copulative to describe elements of the story that have already been described. They pile redundancy upon redundancy. “The apple was red, not just red but the reddest of reds. It shone fire-engine-red in the noontime sun. It was arrest-me red, the shade of a new sports car, the color of new blood, blah blah blah.” This style may earn you oohs and ahs in some literary circles— And if that’s what you want, more power to you! But most of us, you’ll bore us to tears, especially if the color of the apple has no effect on the actual story. A variation of this is the travelogue syndrome, in which a writer goes down a (usually long) list of concepts, which have no connection to each other except that they’re all in the same setting. Ask yourself whether a copulative sentence adds anything new to the story. See if you can prune down your prose by deleting it.
Promote predicate adjective to verb. If you decide that you do need the sentence, look at what’s in the sentence’s predicate. If it’s an adjective, see if you can change it into a verb. So for example, the infamous, “She was sad.” Change this into: “[Something] saddened her.” You may need to make up the “something,” or combine this clause with another sentence in order to make it work.
Promote predicate noun to verb. If the sentence’s predicate contains a noun, you may be able to convert it to a verb as well. This is sometimes called “denominalizing,” the opposite of what many business and technical writers do. You can often identify nominalized verbs (which you ought to denominalize), because the sentence starts with words like “There is” or “It is.” For instance: “There was an investigation into the cause of the accident.” Change to: “We investigated the cause of the accident.” You should also look for passive-voice verbs that say nothing in themselves, foisting the action of the sentence onto the subject. So: “The transmission of the data was accomplished by the system.” Instead, try: “The system transmitted the data.”
Promote subordinate clauses. If the main action of the sentence is buried in a subordinate clause, try rewriting that subordinate clause as a main clause. So: “What he wanted was a red Corvette.” Rewrite as: “He wanted a red Corvette.” Note that the sentence might be missing words that would normally set off a subordinate clause, but you can still promote the subordinate verb: “The tumbleweeds were the things [that were] rolling across the plain.” Change to: “The tumbleweeds were rolling across the plain.”
Turn it into an attribute or appositive. Try eliding the “to be” verb and attaching the predicate to some part of another sentence. I know that’s a mouthful. Here’s an example: “The sports car raced down the highway. It was arrest-me red.” Try making the color an attribute of the car: “The arrest-me-red sports car raced down the highway.” Another example, this time with an appositive: “The sky was a sheet of drab grey, and grey sheets of rain poured down.” Try something like: “The sky, a sheet of drab grey, poured down grey sheets of rain.”
In general, focus on the action. Start by asking yourself what action the sentence is conveying. That determines what verb dominates the sentence. Then you can arrange the other concepts of the sentence around that verb, usually in a “Something action [something else]” form.