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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Write Tight, Part 1 - To Be or Not To Be

Part 1 - To Be or Not To Be

Many folks have complimented my style of writing, describing it as “tight”. As a rule, I don't use flowery or perfumey words nestled in extra long sentences. I get to the point.

Keep in mind, writing styles, like fast cars and tight clothes, are a matter of personal opinion. I remember way back in college reading works of Willa Cather, an acclaimed writer and story teller, yet my experience felt like having my teeth slowly pulled. 

She was NOT a tight writer.

Willa Cather
Such disappointments only gave greater zest to the nights when we acted charades, or had a costume ball in the back parlour, with Sally always dressed like a boy. Frances taught us to dance that winter, and she said, from the first lesson, that Ántonia would make the best dancer among us. On Saturday nights, Mrs. Harling used to play the old operas for us—"Martha," "Norma," "Rigoletto"--telling us the story while she played. Every Saturday night was like a party.” -My Átonia

Oh, my God ... get to the point! No disrespect, Willa ...

Yes. It's just me.

To her credit, Ms. Cather did an exceptional job of “active voice” – albeit annoying – which I've learned is critical in writing.

The Nemesis: To Be

In Spanish (a romantic language), there are two forms of “to be”: a familiar (ser) and a formal (estar). In English, we have just the one: “to be”. It takes many forms. The present tense (I am, you are, he/she/it is), the past tense (I was, you were, he/she/it/ was), the past participle (I/you have been, he/she/it has been) and the present participle (I am being...bored). Exactly. Reading the verb to be is boring.

I was walking down the street.
She was standing in the window.
He was jumping up and down in joy.

So, nix it.

I walked down the street,
She stood in the window.
He jumped up and down for joy.

Tighter writing, less words, more action. Done.

This is trickier than it seems. Especially when you consider the verb “to be” indicates fact. Consider,

       Jack Harkness was immortal.

Kinda tough to dance around that one. Remember the goal. A writer gives out facts all the time. It doesn't have to read like an equation.

       Jack Harkness = immortal

What if you finesse the information?

       Jack Harkness often cursed his immortality.

Wow. Not only did we learn about Jack's immortality, but we got some sense regarding his emotions around it. By eliminating the fact, we gained insight.


This isn't to say you should eliminate the verb altogether. When characters talk, for instance, the verbs gets used all the time.

“Where are you now?”
“I'm at the grocery. Is there anything you want me to get?”
“I'm almost home. I'll call if there's no milk.”

Trying to lose “to be” can just get in the way.

“Give me your location.”
“I just pulled up to the grocery. Can you think of anything to get?”
“Let me get home. I noticed a shortage of milk earlier.”

Possible, yes, but not necessary. Your characters talk the way, well, you want them to. Once outside the conversation, however, tighten it up!

(For bonus points, how many times did I use the verb "to be" in this article, excluding the examples?)

Coming next, Part 2 - The Function of Conjunction Junction


Unknown said...

Good article. I enjoyed it!
oh yeah and you used "to be" four times...
Three expressed, one implied. "Kinda tough" is really "It is kinda tough"

Jax Robertson said...

I counted 6, Jennifer, plus the implied. It's sneaky! (See what I did there?)