Who does not recognize Hamlet’s famous soliloquy?
Perhaps, when William Shakespeare penned those words, he didn’t realize that related not only to the prince of Denmark’s wondering whether to live or die, but also to writers. Should we or should we not use the verb “to be” in our writing?
Forsooth, there’s nothing wrong with “is” or “was.” Dost we not use these simple verbs every day?
Of course, the answer is yes, but a better question to ask ourselves is, “Are they the best words to use?” Verbs are essential in writing a novel. Without them, there is no action to our sentences. They inform. They suggest. We respond to them, because we identify with them and understand what we should think and feel and do. Without verbs, our stories are simply words on a page. Their presence allows writers to wield powerful tools that evoke reactions in both readers and characters. The key is to use the right verb that will evoke the response from the reader that we desire. Which brings us back to Shakespeare’s dilemma, to be or not to be – or in our case, to use “to be” or not.
The truth is that sometimes it’s permissible to use passive construction when we write. For example:
The bird’s leg was injured.
The fellow in the apron is a butcher.
While these are not the most interesting sentences to read, they serve a purpose. The passive construction identifies the subject, and since it’s unnecessary to know how the leg was injured or by whom, this form is fine even if using “to be” makes the sentence a weak one. It states a simple fact without placing the emphasis on the subject.
If, however, the subject is doing the action, it’s preferable to show them doing it, rather than telling this fact to the reader. This is the difference between active construction and passive construction, and it helps to draw readers deeper into the story. “Is” and “was,” when used with another verb, are helpers to describe an action being done. Which sentence is more interesting to read?
The dog is running. OR The dog runs.
Dick and Jane are walking. OR Dick and Jane walk.
The sentences to the left of “or” are examples of weaker verbs that tell the reader what’s occurring. The sentences to the right show the subjects doing some activity, which means they better engage readers. (Stronger verbs also help to tighten our writing.)
Choosing the right verbs for the action
The problem for writers is that when we’re writing our first drafts, we tend to tell our stories because we’re trying to record ideas. We can correct this when we return to the manuscript and begin to revise it, as well as when we read through the final draft to make certain we’ve buffed and polished it sufficiently to catch and hold the reader’s attention. But this is just one of the quandaries we face while completing this check.
If we return to the last examples, we readily see the action because “run” and “walk” are stronger than “is running” and “are walking, but it’s also obvious that the revised versions are not great sentences. They identify who’s doing what, but they employ generic or weak verbs that fail to provide any clue that might inform the reader as to how they accomplish these activities. “Run,” “walk,” and “look” are general verbs that writers frequently overuse. They are also boring actions. If we substitute a specific synonym, we not only inform the reader that the characters do something but also how they’re doing it, while providing a hint as to why. Saying “Dick and Jane tiptoed down the hall,” is far more interesting than walked, because we understand they’re going somewhere and that there must be a reason for them to be moving stealthily.
Revising a novel requires us to go through a series of steps to check a variety of story elements. We need to check the Story, Plot, Characters, Dialogue, and Writing Style. Most often we focus on the first four elements. After all, if there’s no conflict in the story, the characters never change, the plot is contrived, and no one will believe what the characters say, no reader is going to bother buying the book. What often gets short shrift is our writing style, not because we don’t care about it, but because we’re writers, not editors. Sometimes, we are so close to our story and characters that we just can’t see the problems in our style. Mark Twain once offered this advice:
“Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very, your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
This may have worked once, but today’s editors are not going to make these deletions. Using too many adverbs, or relying on crutch words time and again, merely indicates that we care less about how we write than we do for the way we write. Yet the lack of consistency, pesky misspellings, and constant use of too many words to get a point across are often reasons that literary agents reject manuscripts or potential buyers pass on purchasing our books. The more polished a story is, the greater the chance that someone takes a chance on it. But if we don’t care to make the extra effort, why should they?
“To Be or Not To Be & Other Editing Quandaries” is a hands-on workshop to help writers who want to improve their writing style, yet aren’t certain how to go about achieving this. For more experienced writers, it’s a chance to brush up on rusty skills. This is about self-editing: polishing your manuscript to improve the chances of getting representation or increasing sales. The workshop is not meant to replace editors. They remain key components of the writing process and they’re skilled in helping us improve our stories even more. But a good writer cares about her/his story and the readers’ experience when they open our book. Learning what to search for and how to correct our writing style is just as important as crafting a moving experience that the reader will relish and remember long after the story ends.
A retired librarian, Cindy Vallar is a historical novelist and member of the Historical Novel Society. She is also a freelance editor and for seventeen years, she’s penned “The Red Pencil” column for their Historical Novels Review. As the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, she writes monthly articles on the history of maritime piracy. Dark Oak Press recently published her historical fantasy, “Rumble the Dragon,” in its short story anthology, A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. She invites you to visit her award-winning website, Thistles & Pirates to learn more.
A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder Banned from his home after answering a wizard’s riddle, Rumble must live in the dangerous world of men. He forms an uneasy alliancewith exiled Northmen to retrieve a sacred chalice stolen by their fiendish arch nemesis, Ivan Skullsplitter. “Rumble the Dragon” is one of twenty-four amazing tales of bravado, daring, and dastardly deeds committed by the legendary pirates. Travel the High Seas and the far reaches of the galaxy in this collection of tales that explore the past, present, and future of our favorite scallywags. Good luck, and may the wind be in your favor, blowing you toward good pickings, and a safe harbor.