Be-verb-itis

Joan Upton Hall in her Rx for your Writing Ills, Self-editing for Creative Writers, calls this BVDS, or “Be-verb Dependency Syndrome.”

I first met Joan through the Writers’ League of Texas’ critique program when an early draft of my current novel needed the attention of a professional editor. I received her critique of the first twenty-five or so pages and knew immediately that I could learn a lot more from her. The League program mentioned nothing about continuing associations, so I tentatively asked if she would be willing to look at more of the manuscript. I’ll never forget the emphasis in her response: “Tosh, it’s one of the things I do.”

With that settled, we began a collaborative effort to improve the manuscript. If I remember correctly, we agreed to work with forty-page installments. I incorporated the edits and suggestions from the first critique, revised the second segment with the lessons learned in mind, and submitted it. My intention was to repeat that process for the complete novel, and at the very least to improve the initial ratio of corrective edits to smiley faces.

From my perspective, the association with Joan was more than worth the time and expense, and one of the lessons she taught me involved being attentive to the excessive use of be, been, being, am, are, is, was and were. I can’t provide justification for this any better than she already has in her book, and that’s not my intent. The purpose of this post is to present a follow-up in the form of personal experience in the intervening years with regard to treating this “disease.”

As a part of the struggle to improve my writing skills by avoiding the ills (word play intended), I joined the Novel-in-Progress Group (NIP) of Austin. Initially apprehensive, I quickly learned that this group had a lot to offer, and I made up my mind to become a participating member by doing the best I could when it came to presenting comments on submissions from other NIPers.

Armed with the results of my own study and invigorated by Joan’s lessons, I jumped into the roundtable environment with fervor. I’d probably attended no more than a few meetings when I made a comment about the proliferation (at least according to me) of be-verbs in the manuscript. It didn’t take long for someone to ask, “What the heck is a beaver?”

We got that squared away and by now I’m considered by most NIPers as being the be-verb policeman in the group. And if the truth be told, my attention to this issue probably is as welcomed by some as a flashing light bar in the rearview. “I stopped you for excessive be-verbing. May I see your writer’s license, please?”

And, of course, most of our discussions involve differences of opinion. In my view, that’s a major contribution to the strength and longevity of the group. The question of what constitutes be-verb-itis, or even if there is such a thing, can initiate spirited conversation. My position has evolved into this: be-verbs express a state of existence rather than a state of doing or action. It’s analogous to the mantra of show, don’t tell.

That is not to say that be-verbs are passive, they simply aren’t as active as other choices. In an imperfect example, let’s consider the sentence, It was night. There’s no ambiguity in that, but we can probably agree that the sentence tells. Jack couldn’t see more than a few feet in the moonless night. We learn that it’s nighttime by being shown while simultaneously learning something about Jack.

Joan emphasizes the point that being aware of BVDS does not mean furiously scrubbing a manuscript to remove them all, because they can serve a purpose. I look at it as being aware of how easy they are to use. And for that reason, I pay little attention to them on first drafts. But during revision, I pause at each be-verb and ask myself if restructuring the sentence can eliminate it. If a solution doesn’t easily come to mind, I look on either side of it to see how close another one might be. If I find a cluster, then I’ll usually spend some time trying to eliminate one or more before moving on.

As for all entries in the Writer’s Desk logbook, this post in no way intends to convince anyone of anything. It’s nothing more than sharing with visitors some of my personal observations while exploring this marvelous craft we call writing.

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One Response to Be-verb-itis

  1. Lolly Walter says:

    Thanks for another useful explanation of writing craft, Tosh. I appreciate your be-verb police state. I’m not enjoying the hours I’m spending evaluating every “to be” use in my manuscript, but I figure that’s part of the price of admission to the world of the published author.

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