Banner graphic

To Be or Not

by
Max Griffin

Every author has heard an editor, or perhaps a colleague in one of our writing groups, complain about "weak verbs." The easiest example of a weak verb is any form of "to be." For instance, this sentence uses a weak verb.

Mary was a crybaby about Sam calling her lazy.

The weak verb here is "was;" it carries the burden of linking Mary to her actions. In fact, the sentence is pretty awful all around since it tells the readers she's a crybaby as opposed to showing it. Many editors would ask the author to change it to a more active sentence. For example, we might re-write the above in the following way.

Mary's lower lip thrust out when Sam called her lazy. "Am NOT!" she whined.

Most of us would probably agree the second is better than the first. But why is it better? After all, it's still got that weak verb: Mary says, "Am not," and "am" is a form of "to be." Of course, what makes it different is that we are showing Mary acting like a crybaby as opposed to telling the readers. Her petulant speech denying it is part of the showing.

The point here is that when we talk about "weak verbs," it's usually shorthand for a more fundamental idea. In this case, that idea is "show, don't tell." The weak verb passively describes Mary, while the second example shows, through her words and deeds, that she's being a crybaby.

I recently read a long essay on an online writing site about this subject. The author had gathered together dozens of examples of published authors who used weak verbs in their prose. Some of the authors were famous, and many were current best-sellers. The essay used these examples to make the argument that "weak verbs," and forms of "to be" in particular, are just fine to use in our prose. After all, if they're good enough for Hemingway, or Capote, or Maugham, why can't beginning authors, use them?

Well, there's a good answer to that. We shouldn't use them because we want to get published.

Now, I could argue that there is a good reason having to do with craft for preferring active verbs. Like all preferences, it's probably not a good idea to apply this one with obsessive zeal. However, where weak verbs lead to weak writing, as in the example above, we should avoid them. But that's not the argument I want to make here. My argument is that if we want to get published, we should avoid weak verbs.

For the beginning author, the challenge is to get off of the editor's reject pile and into the consider-for-publication pile. Editors--and agents--are humans. By all accounts, submissions from would-be authors swamp their inboxes: they get far more stories and novels than they can possibly publish or even read.

Editors and agents have developed experience-based techniques for sorting manuscripts. Since they can't read everything that crosses their desks, they will scan for elements they can quickly and easily find, and they use those to sort into "read" and "reject" piles. Scientists do the same thing when confronted with reams of data; they call this technique heuristics. These become gatekeeper rules.

Just like "weak verbs" in the example above is shorthand for "show, don't tell," these heuristics are shortcuts to help over-worked editors and publishers sort through their submissions.

So, what do editors use to sort manuscripts? Well, the first thing is whether or not the author has previously published any fiction. Nothing succeeds like success. Thus, one can find countless examples of published authors who have used weak verbs, passive voice, adverbs, inserted info-dumps and even head-hopped and still been published. I could give you an example of a current NY Times best-selling author who does all of these things. Whether these are good or bad isn't my point. These authors sell their works to publishers--and readers buy their novels--based on their prior sales history. Once you've written an best-seller, chances are you can do anything you want.

What other heuristics besides prior sales do editors and agents use? Well, some will decide which pile your submission belongs in based only on your first sentence. That may not be fair, and may not even make sense, but it's a fact. That makes the first sentence critical for an unpublished author.

All of the other "don't-do's" that we learn about the craft of fiction fall into the same category. Passive voice? Editors will likely toss it in the "reject pile." Info-dumps? Same thing. Weak verbs, head-hopping, adverbs, omniscient narrators and many other things have the same outcome--for unpublished authors.

Some of these things are fashion. Again, one can find countless examples to illustrate this by looking at classics from decades ago. So what? We don't have time machines to go back to 1980 to submit our novels. Fashions change, and many of the things that result in rejection today were pervasive fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago. This doesn't mean the current fashion is right. It just is.

If you're an unpublished author who craves to be published, you should listen to what editors and agents say about their heuristics. Your goal is to get into the "read" pile, and avoid the "reject pile." Weak verbs are one of the things that land you in the wrong pile. Put them in your fiction at your peril.

Text, code and banner images copyright © 2012, Max Griffin

Please send comments to Max@MaxGriffin.Net

Cover art is owned by publisher of the novel.