Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

To be or not to be?

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

One of the most daunting aspects of writing good fiction is the sheer number of rules involved. It’s hard enough to write convincing stories about men and women who never lived, but along with developing empathy and imagination, you also need to think hard about dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and the sequence of tenses, and in the end, a lot of it comes down to intuition. I’ve been writing for so long that I rarely need to pause to wonder about grammar, and I’ve more or less internalized The Elements of Style—although I still try to read it again every year or so. But no matter how much you think you know, there’s always something you’ve missed. It wasn’t until my first severe copy edit, for instance, that I realized that I was totally ignorant of such matters as the difference between “toward” and “towards” or “further” and “farther,” and I’d never worried much about the use of a comma before the conjunction in a dependent clause. (For the record, I think the latter is fine in certain cases, and I’m strongly in favor of splitting infinitives.)

Faced with so many rules and guidelines, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture. My favorite example is the admonition, which I’ve seen a lot recently, that writers should avoid “to be” verbs. In itself, the advice seems sound: verbs like is, am, was, and are lack specificity, lend themselves to bland constructions, and aren’t as vivid as verbs that convey clear action. In practice, though, the rule can be a bitch to implement. When we’re told to revise to avoid adverbs or eliminate the passive voice, we can usually fix a sentence by cutting a word or restructuring a clause, but eliminating “to be” verbs isn’t a something you can do with a simple find and replace. (In theory, you could replace most occurrences with the equivalent of “seemed,” which you’ll often see in Updike, among others, and I’ll often do this to emphasize a particular character’s perspective. But this is a solution that is best used sparingly.) Instead, following the rule often means writing a new sentence entirely, which is something that gives most writers the shivers.

The Elements of Style

But there’s a more general lesson here, which is that this rule is more diagnostic than prescriptive. When you go back over your work and find a lot of “to be” verbs, it’s really a sign that other faults are present: your writing may be too abstract, too passive, too general. Going back to fix the offending sentences by hand may address the problem in the short term, but really, the only good solution is to cultivate habits of thought that prevent such constructions from appearing in the first place. Focusing on the verbs themselves is a little like treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease, or, more accurately, counting calories while forgetting to exercise. The ultimate objective is to write concretely, to create images in the mind of the reader, and to put an emphasis on clarity and vividness, and the only way to achieve this is to write endlessly, to patiently revise, and to read authors who embody the qualities of soul you admire.

In short, the problem of style needs to be attacked from both directions. The rules of grammar are there for a reason: they’re a means of facilitating communication and making sure that the reader understands what the writer is trying to say. In practice, though, they’re acquired mostly through trial and error, by writing a million bad words along the way, until the writer starts to develop an ear for good language, in the same way a songwriter can improvise a vocal melody without thinking consciously about the theory of music. Attaining that kind of intuition is every writer’s dream, but even when you attack the problem as diligently as you can, you generally find that craft keeps moving the goal posts. And even the most accomplished author still makes mistakes: Norman Mailer spent something like ten years writing Harlot’s Ghost, and overlooked a dangling modifier in the very first sentence, even if he tried to justify it after the fact. But it’s still worth playing the game, as long as we remember that when we worry about “to be” or not “to be,” craft is still the question.

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2013 at 9:23 am

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