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ENTRY

To be or not to be
June 10, 2008

I rarely obsess about grammer or style. I tend to write away, listening to the sound of the words and phrasing. Not that I write horridly ungrammatical and tangled sentences (not usually), my writing leans toward the simple and active. But lately as I write a first draft of a new novel, I think a lot about the necessity of using "to be" and its forms.

For example, I wrote: "While Mutter snapped photos of the action, the forklift operator bent over and straightened up without effort. The prosaic, adept maneuver of a man in no pain." Usually, I write "It was the prosiac ..." Of course, using "It was" makes the construction a complete sentence rather than a phrase. But I doubt readers miss the "It was," their minds automatically fill in the reference back to the action performed. Or I could use a comma connecting the phrase to the sentence. But that construction changes the sound and the impact of the separate phrase.

You've probably heard of E-Prime--the movement to eliminate using "to be" forms in writing. For example, the E-Prime writer changes "The food wasn't very good." to "I didn't like the food." The change makes the writing more active and eliminates ambiguity as to the agent of the action. I try to use E-Prime rules (introductory Wikipedia article), reducing "to be" instances as much as possible. For example, I wrote this blog entry in E-Prime. I find writing in E-Prime more difficult, but ultimately readers should find the writing more readable and enjoyable.

I think therefore I, er, exist.

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COMMENTS

Number of comments: 6
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Jean Hanson
What a great post, Todd. I recently read The Shipping News--yes, for the first time! And was quite taken by Proulx's use of this phrase technique rather than "to be" sentencing. And---hi Todd! Writers in Fort Collins miss you--including this one, who thinks of you often but is lousy at staying in touch. Looking forward to your next book. Jean.

Todd
Thanks, Jean. I have to admit I haven't read Shipping News yet, although I did see the movie. That's pretty rare for me to do it in that order. But now I'll have to find a copy. And thanks for the personal note, too. I often think of you and the great friends and writers in Fort Collins, especially on Tuesday nights!

Teresa Funke
An, the Shipping News is one of my FAVORITE books and partly because I was amazed at her writing technique in that book and how she was able to do it consistently. You'll have to read it, Todd.

Jo Reed
OKay, sure, tight/active sentences, but this e-prime stuff is one big gimmick if you ask me. Nothing *really* wrong with "be" is there?

Lee Witte
I don't think it's a gimmick, and I think the point's well taken that we get sloppy with our work choice and sentence construction. PLus we're talking about $creative$ writing here. Artful writing. So be(!) at least a little more artful.

Jo Reed
You should say "So write a little more artfully."

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