Bloom with Verbs!
At the beginning of advanced creative writing class, I ask students to populate their sentences with muscular verbs. I suggest that they avoid overuse of the ‘to be’ verb.”
“Well, Shakespeare wrote ‘to be or not to be,’ a student responds.” So what’s wrong with using the ‘to be’ verb?”
“Find verbs to animate your ideas. Verb variety engages your reader. Choreograph sentences. Make verbs dance and tumble,” my reply.
I focus on breaking a habit all writers fall into. It feels natural to write sentences with is, am, was, and were, and contractions such as that’s or there’s. On a subconscious level, we move into the “to be” groove. Many students do not know how to use passive voice intentionally, but that becomes another issue.
I explain to students that just because Hemingway did it, or their favorite writer does it, they don’t need to. To assist them, I provide a Verb Bank and recommend frequent withdrawals and additions. We also create and combine our own action verbs.
“Make friends with verbs and play,” I say and offer suggestions. “Nike says, Just do it. Do you notice any ‘to be’ verb?” I provoke and energize awareness of verb usage.
I push on to outlast their protestations, “Consider verbs the work horses of your sentences. These power ponies add description, details, and action. If you alter the structure of the sentence, you can eliminate the use of the ‘to be’ verb.”
I suggest they return guilty sentences to: subject, verb, and object. At first the alteration in sentence structure will provoke frustration. Students claim their style becomes altered as a result of eliminating the “to be” verb. When they realize new possibilities, attitudes change.
Gradually, students relent and deconstruct sentences. They begin to realize that their verb awareness permits them also to select stronger subjects and add fewer adverbs and adjectives. They begin to believe also in the possibilities of metaphor.
My first exercise requires students to write 250-300 words without any “to be” verbs. They introduce themselves to the class in metaphor as a traveler, explorer, or a wanderer without the use of "to be."
When students return their responses, the next phase involves questioning how the exercise felt. After you write your Introduction, comment on how you felt about eliminating the “to be” verb. Did this enrich your writing after the initial struggle to eliminate all the "to be" verbs? Did you search for verbs from the Verb Bank to power your sentences? What difference did this make in your writing?
Most students find the results gained outweighed the frustrations. They discover new insights in their writing. Others struggle and still feel a need for “is.” I ask these students to consider the usage and why they need the “to be” verb in the sentence. Does the sentence tone require the passive voice?
I request that they circle all “to be” verbs and notice if a habit rather than a choice has developed. I also turn sentences around for them and share additional versions. We work to find other ways to enrich the sentence’s meaning. Humor hovers to discourage frustration.
With this focus on awareness and the process of verb choice, students learn more than the elimination of the “to be” verb. They move away from overusing modifiers and select stronger subjects. When they read work aloud, they notice the difference in rhythm. With more practice, they feel less irritation and restriction.
Creative Write: Do you notice too many "is" and "was" repetitions in your work? See if you can catch those gremlins and search for muscular verbs. Try writing the exercise I describe above without using the "to be" verb. How did it feel?