The hardest skill students learn is how to replace the verb “to be.” Yet is it the single most important skill for improving the verbs in their writing.
The problem is that the verb “to be” rarely has strong synonyms.
As a linking verb it can sometimes be replaced with another linking verb. “He is sick” can become “He looks sick” or “He feels sick” or “He seems sick.” But none of those replacements is much stronger than the original verb, “is.”
Even harder is when the verb identifies something that exists. How do you restate, “That dog is mine.” “That dog was mine,” changes just the verb tense; it is the same verb. “That dog becomes mine,” changes the meaning.
What I tell my students is that usually they will need to replace not just the verb, but the whole sentence. I ask them to tell me what the sentence means, using other words. For the sentence, “He is sick,” I ask how they know he is sick. What does he look like that would let me know he is sick? They might say, “His face is red and he has a fever.” I might say, “That’s good, but you are still using the word is. How can you tell me that his face is red and that he has a fever without using the word ‘is’”? Usually they are stumped, so I offer suggestions. “His mother placed an ice bag on his flushed forehead.” Or, “’Wow! 101 degrees,’ said his mother shaking the thermometer.” Or, “The feverish boy lay down on the cold tile floor, moving every few seconds to chill his hot body.”
The trick is to let the reader see, hear, touch, smell or taste (usually see) what the writer saw in his mind before he wrote, “He is sick.” “He is sick” is a conclusion based on certain facts. What are the facts that led the writer to conclude that “He is sick”? Those facts are what the reader needs to know so that the reader can come to his own conclusion that “He is sick.”
We’ll have more blogs on changing the verb “to be” in the future because it is such a vital part of improving writing, yet such a difficult skill to master. For now, we’ll move on to the next blog about sentence beginnings.