If you perform a search for “was” and “were” in your manuscript, you’ll be shocked at the number of results you get. A glut of weak verbs, especially being verbs, are among the most common prose issues that I see in manuscripts. Now, it’s impossible to avoid being verbs altogether in a novel, and even if you could do so, you wouldn’t want to. Such a book would be rife with stilted, unnatural prose. But the overuse of being verbs seems to be ubiquitous among writers, so I’ve developed a quick test that you can apply to the being verbs you’re considering replacing. When you come across a being verb you’re not sure about, ask yourself these questions:
- Are there an excessive number of being verbs in a small amount of text? If so, change a few.
- Is there a quick, obvious change that can be made to strengthen the verb?
- Are you losing resonance in the sentence that you could have with a stronger verb?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, see if you can change the verb. Sometimes you can do so with a quick word swap. For instance, “A mahogany bookshelf was in the corner” could become “A mahogany bookshelf stood in the corner.” (As a side note, be careful about overdoing this! It’s common for manuscripts that overuse being verbs to become manuscripts that overuse the words “stood,” “sat,” and “lay,” as these can be the most obvious substitute words.) Sometimes you’ll need to rework the sentence or even the whole paragraph to make the prose flow.
Are you wondering, “Can’t my editor just activate the verbs for me during the line edit?” The answer is yes, your editor absolutely can—but if you start doing it yourself, you are likely to find that the quotes you get for line editing are lower. You can literally save yourself money on production costs by learning to activate verbs like a pro. And that’s always a good thing!