How exciting is it to read a story full of “it was” or “there were” phrases? Yes, you’ve heard it before – phrases like these are a variation of passive voice, and they put readers to sleep. Let’s explore alternatives.
As an example of the difference it can make to switch out dull, boring verbs with punchier active ones, Randall McKee agreed to let me use part of a documentary type story he recently read to our newly formed lifestory writing group. Randall read the “after” version, but confirmed that his first draft was indeed full of the dull form. Since he continued to save improvements over his initial draft, I took the liberty of reverse engineering the passage, especially the verbs, back to what they might have been. The clip below was excerpted from his opening paragraph:
… Blake's Barber Shop was next to the Brownfield Hotel on North 6th Street just off Broadway. Outside the shop was a traditional red, white and blue banded barber pole. A hat tree was next to the door. It was full of silver-belly Stetsons, neatly creased fedoras and soiled blue-striped railroad engineer's caps, head coverings for gentlemen from all walks of life. There was dark paneling halfway up the wall from a white tiled floor. Behind the barbers was a long wooden breakfront. Its shelf was piled with clippers, shaving mugs, brushes, bottles of hair tonic, aftershave and jars of Barbacide with scissors, straight razors and combs soaking in it. The breakfront had a mirror along it that looked like it doubled the number of items on the shelf. …
Now compare with the final version he read to the group:
… Blake's Barber Shop was next to the Brownfield Hotel on North 6th Street, just off Broadway. Outside the shop a traditional red, white and blue banded barber pole beckoned menfolk to enter. A hat tree stood next to the door, a harbor for silver-belly Stetsons, neatly creased fedoras and soiled blue-striped railroad engineer's caps, head coverings for gentlemen from all walks of life. Dark paneling rose halfway up the wall from a white tiled floor. Behind the barbers stood a long wooden breakfront, its shelf piled with clippers, shaving mugs, brushes, bottles of hair tonic, aftershave and jars of Barbacide in which scissors, straight razors and combs soaked. A mirror stretched the breakfront length. Its reflection appeared to double the number of items on the shelf. …
Notice how the second version is laced with action verbs: beckoned, stood, rose up, piled, soaked, stretched, appeared to double. Doesn’t that second version just jump off the page compared to the first?
You aren’t likely to get that second result on your first draft, at least not right away. Randall explained that he wrote the first draft quickly to get it down on the page. Then he worked on polishing that first pass. “I looked at each sentence to consider how I might make it better.” I think you’ll agree that he did.
Use these tips to find and replace your ho-hum verbs:
1) Read through a story with a highlighter in hand. Mark each instance you use any form of a pronoun together with a form of the verb to be. Some variations include “it is,” “there were,” and “they were.” Please note: not all forms of being verbs are banned – just clichéd phrases with pronouns.
2) Ponder each sentence to determine what’s happening in it. What’s the message?
3) Exercise your creativity to find a suitable action verb to replace the “being” verb.
You may find this a challenge at first, and I guarantee they’ll invade your first drafts. My first draft of the previous sentence, “This may be … ,” got tossed. This is a vague pronoun and “may be” is a conditional form of to be. As you gain experience, you’ll find these being phrases popping out at you everywhere. Alternate phrasings will come more easily to mind.
Who knows? You may form the habit of thinking in active phrases, punching up conversations and becoming a more compelling story teller.