Writers’ Hacks, Vol. 1

Lou Carlozo June 17, 2020

When to be is not to be: I declare war on the weakest verb in English

Since I fancy myself far more clever than my colleagues and Dad jokes would suggest, I thought about calling this column “It Is What It Isn’t” or “You Can’t Spell ‘Piss-Poor Copy’ Without ‘Is.’” Assuming you can shake off my punderwhelming wit, you may see where I’m headed.

Regardless, stay with me—and hopefully in the weeks ahead—as I share writers hacks garnered from my three centuries as a scribe that can burnish your copy. And in this case, snake oil word nerds be damned, this hack could render dramatic improvements to your next piece in minutes.

Here, I am/is/was/were/will talk about various verb forms of “to be.”

Often employed in passive voice (i.e. “One of the mightiest things about Lou’s writing is…”), “to be” too oft squats in a sentence like a sleepy sumo wrestler in United’s economy section, hogging all that precious room you could otherwise dedicate to the power verb

So why on Earth, Mars or the Planet of your Peeps would you say “He is swimming” when you could instead say “He swims”? Or “He is sad” when you could uncork a more intense, precise shot of verbal bubbly? “He oozes sadness” may not constitute the best answer here, but choice verbs do ooooooze power. And if you can find the right one in place of  “is,” you won’t shoot yourself in the foot with your be-be gun.

Here I present a passage from my own book in progress. First, check out the reverse-engineered version with “is” and its ilk:

The Millard Tydings Bridge in Maryland is named for a former U.S. senator. It is 90 feet above the dark Susquehanna waters. It seems like 500. There are no shoulders on this so-called span and it is framed by feeble guardrails that are like Popsicle-stick frames and are no match for a car that’s swerving. There are also signs that say “SUBJECT TO CROSSWINDS,” which is just the kind of warning you want to see in a pouring night rain as menacing semis are driving by. Even for the steely-nerved driver, it is a formidable late-night adversary, the kind of bridge that is hard to spot until you are around a bend and are in its menacing grasp. Below you is one of the most ancient rivers on Earth, which is at least 66 million years old.  

Now, note the difference in the finished version (so far):

Named for a former U.S. senator, the Millard Tydings stilts 90 feet above the dark Susquehanna waters. It seems like 500. This so-called span lacks shoulders; its feeble, Popsicle-stick guardrails stand no chance against an errant swerve. It taunts you with signs that say “SUBJECT TO CROSSWINDS,” just the kind of warning you want to see in a pouring night rain as menacing semis roar by. Even for the steely-nerved driver, it is a formidable late-night adversary, the kind of bridge that sneaks up as you slip ’round a bend and land in its menacing grasp. Below you: one of the most ancient rivers on Earth, at least 66 million years old.  

Maybe you like parts of the first passage. I wouldn’t blame you. Still, I hope you get the point. Verbs such as “stilt,” “taunt,” “roar,” “sneak,” and “land,” left alone, create tension and muscle. Editing out written static makes it easier to pick verbs that amplify your intent.    

Now, what I dare you to do is—strike that … Now I dare to pull out a recent example of your fine reporting and writing. Grab that highlighter; you choose the colour. Scan from top to bottom and mark every instance where you use a “to be” verb. Ask yourself: Did I ignore or overlook a better choice?

As this sentence is demonstrating (twice), there’s no point in overkill. “To be” often sounds more conversational and prying away every instance could yield the verbal equivalent of an impossibly airbrushed not-so-supermodel. 

But also consider how many cliches utilize “to be” to compound written sin. Along with the aforementioned “it is what it is,” you also have “my name is mud,” and “necessity is the mother of invention.” Or: “Hell, that’s a cliche.”  (My least favorite doesn’t employ “is,” but IS ridiculous: “Needless to say.” Think about that one. Never use it again.)

And, if you’re cheeky, you could take on the challenge one of my students once proposed. He dared me to write an article without a single “to be” verb and I did: 100+ words of blissful be-lessness. Well, almost. I saved one “is” for the last sentence, just to taunt him—and with dramatic effect, I thought. I’ve shared the article here.  

Because truly, I is proud of it. 

This week on my “Bankadelic” podcast: SPECIAL REPORT: RACE, RACISM AND BANKING–SINS AND SOLUTIONS IN THE WAKE OF THE GEORGE FLOYD KILLING

“Bankadelic” is a spunky finance and banking podcast that picks up where my last effort, which garnered 125,000 listens, left off. Of all the podcast episodes I’ve ever recorded, this one ranks as the most rewarding, though inspired by tragic events. Please take a listen, connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know what you think.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief.