A must read for anyone doing creative writing: broca’s ten mistakes of writing. Excerpt from my favorite, the ‘to be’ words:
6. THE ‘TO BE’ WORDS:
Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the “to be” words – “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been” and others – you’ll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl.
The “to be” words represent the existence of things – “I am here. You are there.” Think of Hamlet’s query, “to be, or not to be.” To exist is not to act, so the “to be” words pretty much just there sit on the page. “I am the maid.” “It was cold.” “You were away.”
I blame mystery writers for turning the “to be” words into a trend: Look how much burden is placed on the word “was” in this sentence: “Around the corner, behind the stove, under the linoleum, was the gun.” All the suspense of finding the gun dissipates. The “to be” word is not fair to the gun, which gets lost in a sea of prepositions.
Sometimes, “to be” words do earn a place in writing: “In a frenzy by now, he pushed the stove away from the wall and ripped up he linoleum. Cold metal glinted from under the floorboards. He peered closer. Sure enough, it was the gun.” Okay, I’m lousy at this, but you get the point: Don’t squander the “to be” words – save them for special moments.
Not so long ago “it was” *defined* emphasis. Even now, if you want to say, “It was Margaret who found the gun,” meaning nobody else but Margaret, fine. But watch out – “it was” can be habitual: “It was Jack who joined the Million Man March. It was Bob who said he would go, too. But it was Bill who went with them.” Flat, flat, flat.
Try also to reserve the use of “there was” or “there is” for special occasions. If used to often, this crutch also bogs down sentence after sentence. “He couldn’t believe there was furniture in the room. There was an open dresser drawer. There was a sock on the bed. There was a stack of laundry in the corner. There was a handkerchief on the floor….” By this time, we’re dozing off, and you haven’t even gotten to the kitchen.