In rewriting Martyrs (five chapters away! Woot woot!), a lot of what I’m doing is simple. Sure, in the first half of the book I did a lot of major revamps of certain scenes and chapters, but for the second half, the half that was already more or less on par with what I wanted the plot to be, I mostly tweaked the writing to make it stronger. In the chapters I rewrote today, I focused a lot on tightening language.
I noticed myself using a lot of verb phrases that include the words “was and were” (or any other form of “to be,” really). Think of it like this: “Dane was walking down the alley toward her,” or “They were speaking quietly amongst one another.” These are “to be” verb phrases, or verb phrases where the auxiliary verb is a form of “to be.” “To be” verbs include is, was, am, are, and were.
This is commonly mistaken for “passive writing,” but it actually isn’t. If you want to learn a bit more on passive versus active writing you should check out this great post from Grammar Girl. I love her.
Anyway, let’s back on track. I went skiing today so my tired mind is a bit of a jumble.
You see, one of the best ways to improve your writing is to tighten it and make it more concise than it was before. Even though using “to be” verb phrases are not grammatically incorrect, and they aren’t passive voice, they also aren’t exactly concise. They slow down reading speed, and therefore slow down your novel’s pace.
Not only that, but in beta reading and critiquing others’ work, I’ve realized that a lot of writers do this same exact thing (relying on “to be” verb phrases). It got me thinking–if this is such a simple thing to change and everyone is doing it, I should definitely write about it and help others fix this in their own writing, too.
Essentially, it’s a pretty easy writing exercise. Take out your completed work, and reread it for any variant of “to be.” This should be pretty easy, since your book is most likely written in past tense. Basically, keep an eye out for the words “was” and “were.” If you wrote in present tense, watch for “is” and “are.” God forbid you wrote in past or present participle, because then you’re watching for “been” and “being” respectively.
Every time you find a verb phrase with one of these words in it, try to rewrite the sentence to remove that phrase. Most of the time, the “to be” verb is totally unnecessary and simply adds words and complicates your scene, but this definitely depends on what you want to accomplish out of what you’re working on. Fast-paced scenes need to move quickly, so you’ll probably want to cut them out, but scenes that need to be slower can be granted a little more clemency.
Here’s an example of a paragraph I edited in Martyrs today. Let me know if you think removing the “to be” phrase strengthened the writing!
Before: Thorn spun on her heels. Noel’s brown eyes were flickering open and closed. Thorn knelt beside her as Sparkie dove from the sky and onto Noel’s chest. Thorn felt her pulse, touched her face. Sparkie pulled the folds of her old, ratty clothes away. There was a deep gash in her stomach.
After: Thorn spun on her heels and ran to Noel. Her brown eyes flickered opened and closed. Thorn knelt beside her as Sparkie dove down from the sky and landed on Noel’s chest. Thorn felt her pulse, touched her face. Sparkie pulled the folds of her old, ratty clothes away. A deep gash tore through her scarred stomach.
Meh, I dunno about you, but I think the “after” is significantly better!