One of the most over-worked verbs in the English language is … well, “is.” The “to be” forms show up all over the place. We think in terms of present existence.
The problem with this simple, much used verb is that when it gets used in narrative pieces, it tosses the prose into a more passive voice. When we say “X is Y,” it captures a static moment, not one in motion or reeking with passion.
In non-fiction prose, “is” runs rampant. In narrative fiction, the narrative post tense, “was,” sweeps its way into every corner.
Why do writers so easily fall into the use of the “to be” forms?
Part of it comes from the way we think when we want to explain things. To do that we have to hold things in a static state. And that tends to show up in our word selection as we describe things. It is so easy to say “Things are so,” or “It was thus.”
Writers need to be aware that this happens, and accept that it comes naturally to us. The thing we writers should keep in mind is that once we have the first draft down, we can freshen up the words to make them more active.
If we are to make the most of the “to be” verbs, we need to treat them as very valuable, instead of being as common as dirt. We should work to keep the “to be” verbs focused on descriptions of actual identity instead of just “states of being.” By that, I mean the difference between saying “the sun is rising” and “the sun rises” should be something of which we are always aware.
By statements of identity, I mean where you want to declare that one thing really does equal another. There are occasions when such statements are very important, either in a non-fiction piece or a fictive one. But if we have been using “to be” verbs all over the place, who will notice the important occasion?
Mind you, because we do use the “to be” forms naturally, I don’t think any writer should be concerned if they find it scattered throughout the first draft of the work. But I do feel that after that point, once the time for review and revision arrives, the object should be to remove as many of the unnecessary “to be” uses.
Of course, I could go back through this post itself to take out the unnecessary “to be” uses. But I won’t, because I want to show how easy it is to fall into using them. But in general, take out the static, frozen uses and select more active verbs.