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No word in the English language is as insidious as is is. Is is everywhere. Sometimes is is a helping verb, and sometimes is is a linking verb. Sometimes is is the only verb that will work, but all too often, is isn’t.

Part of the art of writing and editing is deciding whether is is or is not the exact right verb.

Writers can get into a rut of using is — and all the other forms of the verb to be — as the go-to verb for description. It makes sense: If you’re describing what something is, “It is . . .” feels natural. But here’s the problem:

Is is boring.

Is is about being; but doing is so much more interesting.

Don’t Be. Do.

Action verbs are so called for a reason. When you see an action verb, you can intellectually identify with either a physical action — hug, explode, defenestrate — or an internal action — forget, repress, dawdle.

On the other hand, linking verbs like is just sit there like an equals sign. They connect the information in the two halves of the sentence, but they transmit no information of their own.

Editing tip: As much as you can, replace to be with a stronger verb.

By exchanging forms of to be with action verbs, you pack more information into your sentences and make them more interesting. To see this in action, choose any great modern writer; as you read his or her work, focus on the verbs. How often is to be the main verb in a sentence compared with your own writing?

Running with the prose

As part of your blog editing pass, hunt down all the forms of the verb to be — all the ams, ises, ares, wases, weres and plain old bes. (If you highlight them all, you might be surprised how colorful your writing becomes.) If you followed my previous editing tip, you will have already eliminated many of these to bes used as helping verbs. Now see how many of what’s left you can replace with information-packed action verbs.

You’ll probably find yourself tinkering with more than just those to bes, rewriting whole sentences for greater concision and clearer illustration.

Try it with this:

Jordan was ten minutes late to the press conference. He was sweating and his hair was in disarray after running in from the parking lot. He went straight to the microphone to make his first statement, but all we heard for the first several minutes was his heavy breathing.

Three sentences, four linking verbs, a boring paragraph and much of the readers’ time wasted. Focusing on the wases can help turn this into something more compelling and concise:

Jordan rushed into the press conference ten minutes late. Flushed and panting after sprinting in from the parking lot, he tried to make his first statement but succeeded only in gasping into the mic.

The second version is 31 percent shorter, and every word adds information to the sentence. Plus, this more active description better lends itself to an intellectual connection with Jordan’s situation.

But most importantly, it doesn’t bore the reader.

Can you eliminate every instance of to be from your writing? Of course not, nor should you try. But think of to be as salt — used in the right amounts, it brings just the right flavor to your piece; used too much and your piece becomes unpalatable, and your readers will look for better eats elsewhere.

How do you make your writing active? Tell us in the comments.


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