Punch up your writing

Communications students from Wisconsin experimented with avoiding forms of the verb to be in their essays. The to be forms consist of am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

For instance, one student rewrote the sentence, “‘Independence Day’ is a great movie,” without the word is. She decided to explain what made the movie great, rather than simply stating her opinion. So, she wrote, “‘Independence Day kept my attention so much that I’ve seen the movie three times.”

Look at this example of another student’s revised sentence.

With to be: “I am a student.”

Without to be: “I study six subjects in high school, play on the soccer team and do homework every night.”

Which sentence tells what the person actually does? Which sentence interests you more? Which sentence provides more specific details? Which sentence includes facts rather than a label?

The Wisconsin students had this to say about writing without to be forms:

“It forced me to pay more attention to what I wanted to say. It’s easy to write, ‘I am a student,’ but what does that really mean?”

“I might develop my writing more if I had to fully explain myself. I know I should do this anyway, but if I write without to be, I can’t get around it.”

“After writing my paper, I think of myself as having more confidence and strength.”

“The most difficult part was getting out of the habit of labeling myself as being something. If I can eliminate some labeling, it will be easier for a reader to understand what I mean.”

“I don’t think I would have sounded as creative if I had used to be verbs.”

Writing without to be verbs encourages writers to pay attention to what they really want to say and explain otherwise unsupported labels, judgements and opinions. Using action verbs in favor of to be verbs punches up flat writing. Eliminating to be forms creates more powerful, crisp communications.

How about deciding for yourself if writing without to be verbs improves your normal style of writing.

Write about one of these topics, or one of your own, without using am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

• Write from the point of view of your nose.

• Write a letter to your future self.

• Write about the benefits of boredom.

• Write what you did this week to respect the environment.

• Write about what really makes you sad/jealous/angry/embarrassed.


Ready for a break from stories about vampires, suicide, self-mutilation, and other bleak topics? Teens through adults also want books that entertain while exploring life’s important questions. Ken’s War, slated for publication this May by www.fireandiceya.com, does that.

Ken, the protagonist, takes a train trip in Japan. There’s no turning back from the consequences.



(Student comments from Andrea Johnson, “Oh to be a Writer,” More E-Prime: To Be or Not To Be, ISGS, Concord, California)


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