Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs (From the Archives)

I published this post originally back in the fall of 2011 and as I sit here completely blank on what to post today, I thought I’d pull up this fun post. So here’s the old post, with some small changes:


Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs. Or at least eliminate enough of the suckers so they’re not populating your manuscript like the wiry hairs on a hirsute male.

Argh! As my fingers poise over my keyboard, I hesitate. Recently, I’ve become loathe to point out style advice like this when critiquing because this might be someone’s style. In fact, my fingers hesitated so much, I just returned to writing this after taking a 2 hour procrastinating tour around twitter and klout. Sigh. Okay, getting over it. Onward.

So, what do I mean by to-be verbs? These are any time we use is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been in constructing our sentences. These verbs indicate a state of being, which is important to remember when applying this guideline because sometimes what we really want to illustrate is movement, not a persistent state. But! There are times when we DO want to indicate a state of being and using a to-be verb is entirely appropriate rocks (like the to-be I used in the second sentence of this paragraph).

Like any writing tip, this is a guideline only. Not a rule. You should only write what resonates with you.

In case you do want to see how it might improve your story, here are some structures to look out for in your WIP. I like to see them as flags of possible weak areas. I find them, analyze, and either leave them as is, or change them:

  • was + -ing. Just convert the -ing into the action verb. These are the easiest to fix. He was riding > He rode. Sometimes we can go even further, because it’s still not specific enough. For instance, he was speaking before a large group could be changed to he spoke before a large group, but that’s still pretty blah. What kind of mood is he in? What’s happened leading up to this? Can we use this to illustrate the character? Possibly! Maybe something like: he hunched over the microphone, eyes downcast. He swallowed and… you get the idea…
  • was + adjective. They can indicate we’re telling and not showing. Consider something as simple as this: He was gorgeous. That’s telling. How was he gorgeous? Describe what makes him gorgeous to the narrator. As often is the case when showing and not telling, we will use more words to show his hunkiness to the reader. Just using shortcuts like this, or the house was elegant, the food was tasty are like placeholder cards (cardboard cutouts!) scream ‘cardboard cutout!’ in your manuscript telling the reader how they should feel about a character or envision the scene. Better to take the time to describe it in a way that empowers them to feel and see it on their own without tacking on such a nonspecific descriptor. The reader will be pulled into the story in a much more visceral way. Plus, everyone’s tastes are different differ, so what’s tasty or beautiful to one person might not be that way for another, so we’re missing a chance for character development here.
  • was + verb + infinitive verb. Here are two examples from my WIP: she was tempted to say became she itched to say and they were due to leave  became they planned to leave.
  • was + adjective + noun. Again from my WIP: She longed to tell him, but really that was a stupid idea became She longed to tell him, but that would top the list of stupid things to do.
  • was + noun forms of verbs. Just convert it to its original verb. For instance, she was the inventor of… can be she invented
  • was + any kind of word expressing emotion. For example: He was scared about the monster under his bed. Don’t label the emotion, show it instead. A five-headed beast with poisonous drool lurked under his bed, without a doubt. Just his luck, too, today of all days. He sidled across the wall, one eye peeled

There are probably other structures where this pesky guy shows up, but these should get you started. The point is to be aware of it and really scrutinize whether it’s the best way to describe it captures your character or scene. Sometimes it is does! Or it would be very strange to convert it. Or that’s the voice of your character. Or it fits the rhythm. But if you’re getting feedback that your prose is lackluster, consider going on a fishing expedition through your WIP with a pair of tweezers in hand. Sometimes it will be really hard to find another way to say it (at least it is for me!) but when I finally do, it pops! And generally characterizes my heroine or hero in a much better way. I’m offering this tip precisely because it is something I still struggle with it and didn’t find a heck of a lot of practical advice out there, other than don’t use it. I liked Shirley Jump’s example (tip #2) in her article Show Not Tell: What the Heck is that Anyway?

And in case you thought my opening sentence was just for shock value I wrote the opening sentence for shock value, I really did have a purpose. Some people really like overly hairy men, who am I to judge? Same with writing guidelines like this. If it works for you, do it, otherwise don’t; leave the hairs in, or pluck ’em.

How about you? Do you struggle like me trying to convert to-be verbs? Do you have other tips for helping to eliminate them where advisable?


  • Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs @AngelaQuarles  <–click to tweet
  • If your prose is lackluster, consider going on a fishing expedition through your WIP for to-be verbs @AngelaQuarles <– click to tweet

9 Replies to “Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs (From the Archives)”

  1. Thanks for the tips! It’s always good to have a reminder of what to look for when editing.

  2. You’re conflicted with this advice, but what happened is mere suggestion. Any mechanic has a set of tools, and those tools are there to accomplish a certain task. Will a technique (tool) be used in a certain situation? Depends. What’s trying to be done? Am I smoothing out the front end of a story to ease a reader in, or am I adding texture for dialog or conversational tone? That, as a mechanic of words, is at my discretion. The important part is to be aware of the tool and the outcome of its usage.

  3. Maybe this is just the influence of having studied so many languages, but for me, personally, the was/were/is/are + ing construction can signify something different than just using the straight action verb. For example, “They were reading the newspaper” might show that a group has been continuously engaged in that activity since before the scene started, or over the course of the scene. Whereas, “they read the newspaper” indicates a one-time action, a completed action, or something that just started. It’s a pity English doesn’t really have a better, less cluttery way to convey this, as, for example, Russian does with different prefixes for verbs.

  4. Thank you SO MUCH! This is the best article I’ve found on the topic and the variety of examples helped me a ton! One example just isn’t enough, people! 🙂 Thanks for the help!

    1. Awesome, glad it could help! Remember, though, that like anything, this is just a guideline. Using to-be verbs is not wrong, but if you feel like your scene is flat, this could be an area to look at to see if it’ll help 🙂 Happy revising!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.