What Are “Be” Verbs
The eight “be” verbs: Is, Am, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, Been.
Since these words indicate a state of being, we call them “be” verbs.
Why Eliminate “Be” Verbs
Text that is be-verb dependent can feel static, dull, and wordy.
These words are not always bad, but they are weaker than active, powerful verbs. Also, “be” verbs often cause sentences to be more verbose.
Despite sometimes needing “be” verbs, strong writers reword sentences to utilize more active, powerful verbs and reduce wordiness.
See what I did there? I rewrote the second paragraph without using “be” verbs. The second paragraph contains twenty-three words while the third has eighteen.
Naturally, many writers tend to write sentences with a lot of “be” verbs, so I wouldn’t stress it during your first draft. But during your editing phase, you can go through and try to rewrite sentences to make them stronger.
If the rewrite sounds more awkward and cumbersome, use the original.
Your focus isn’t to get rid of them for the sake of getting rid of them. Instead, focus your attention on creating stronger sentences and improving your writing, which sometimes means eliminating a “be” verb or two.
If a sentence sounds wordy, weak, or flat, then a rewrite may be in order.
Strategies to Eliminate “Be” Verbs
1) Change the main verb from an –ing to a regular
Example: You should be asking her for help.
Revised: You should ask her for help.
Example: This play is inspiring to all those who struggle with depression.
Revised: This play inspires those who struggle with depression.
Example: The monster was in the dark tunnel creeping.
Revised: The monster crept down the dark tunnel.
Yes, this strategy changes the verb tense. In the original, the participle indicated a continuous action.
However, sometimes you don’t need to indicate a continuous action even though you wrote it as such in the original. In this case, stick with the simple verb tense.
Sometimes, as with the last example, the “be” verb isn’t right next to the participle (the –ing word), but the fix still applies.
2) Change the “be” verb to a stronger verb
Example: She is sad that the kids can’t play together anymore.
Revised: She feels sad.
Example: The skyscraper was awesome.
Revised: The skyscraper looked awesome.
Example: The pie is delicious.
Revised: The pie tasted delicious.
3) Eliminate the “be” verb by writing one or more showing sentence(s)
Example: The teacher is mean.
Revised: The teacher slammed her hands down on the desk, peered into the student’s eyes, and said, “What did you do?” She didn’t wait for the kid to answer. She just grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of his chair.
This works well in fiction more so than nonfiction. And yes, it adds more words, but it engages the reader and helps paint the picture.
It isn’t always about word count; instead, one should focus on writing more powerful sentences.
4) Change the adjective to the verb
Example: He was angry.
Revised: The situation angered him.
Originally, “angry” was an adjective describing his state of being. In the revised version, “angry” became the verb “angered.”
5) Combine sentences to eliminate the “be” verb
Example: The inefficient time manager is unfulfilled. He heads to bed, disappointed, despite having finished his to-do list.
Revised: The inefficient time manager heads to bed, unfulfilled, having checked everything off on his to-do list.
Example: The child was sad. The sensitive child was feeling that way because of the news story.
Revised: The news story saddened the sensitive child.
In the second example, the sentences shared the same “be” verb. When you have two or more sentences in a row repeating the same verb, combining them helps eliminate at least one.
And then from there, I used method #4 and changed the adjective to the verb to eliminate the remaining one.
6) Change another word to the verb
Example: Charles Schulz was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon strip.
Revised: Charles Schultz created the Peanuts cartoon strip.
In this example, the word creator—originally functioning as a predicate noun—became the verb.
7) Get rid of unnecessary phrases
Example: What she wanted was a flashy new pair of shoes.
Revised: She wanted a flashy new pair of shoes.
Example: One of the main reasons for doing this is to finish your work quicker.
Revised: Following this process ensures you finish the work quicker.
In both cases, these phrases were unnecessary. Writers often use the phrase “one of the reason is” or “one of the best ways to do this is” or other similar phrases, and you often don’t need these phrases. They just make your sentences unnecessarily wordy.
8) Change passive voice into active
Example: More than five hundred children were evacuated from the town by the firefighters and volunteers.
Revised: The firefighters and volunteers evacuated more than five hundred children.
Example: It is believed by the teachers that students should be required to pass in order to go to the next grade.
Revised: The teachers believe students should pass the test to go to the next grade.
Passive voice occurs when the doer comes last. To fix it, just put the doer first.
Examples from Nonfiction Books
Original: “This book is a guide to help you manage your stress and systemize your home so you have time for you. It was designed for moms that want to help their child but are overwhelmed with the demands that come with parenting a special needs child.”
Rewrite: Since this book specifically guides moms who want to help their special needs child but feel overwhelmed, it will provide you with tools to manage your stress and systemize your home so you have time for you.
Methods Used: Combined sentences (#5) and used a stronger verb—provide (#2).
Original: “We went about many mornings where he was refusing to do it on his own. That was the one thing that I was working on that morning with him so I didn’t stress about helping him with everything else.”
Rewrite: While we went through many mornings where he refused to do it on his own, I focused only on getting him to put on his socks so I didn’t stress about everything else.
Methods Used: Changed -ing verb to simple verb (#1) and got rid of unnecessary phrases—that was the one thing that I was working on (#7).
Original: “I was able to work as a care home administrative assistant. Through shadowing these assistants, I was provided insights into the world of work and how the ICT operates in large bodies. […] My placement at this hospital is the one thing that helped me the most. I am now able to work under pressure and adapt to changing environments.”
Rewrite: I found work as a care home administrative assistant where I learned how to work under pressure and adapt to changing environments. Through shadowing these assistants during my BT placement, I gained insights into the world of work and how ICT operates in large bodies.
Methods used: Changed verb to a stronger one—found, gained, and learned (#2) and got rid of unnecessary phrases—is the one thing that helped me (#7).
Katie Chambers, owner of Beacon Point, is a nonfiction and fiction substantive (developmental) editor and copy editor for independent authors, content writer and editor for business professionals, online teacher, and tutor.
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