Using To Be or Not…To Be—That Was the Question!
Kyle Harley, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor
Situated not too far in the distant past, a young, hopeful senior in college decided to embark on a writing portfolio as part of his minor’s requirements for completion. Accompanying the daunting task of producing nearly two hundred pages of original work in the course of eighteen weeks included a rather strange trip, luckily only once, to the writing center. Baffled by the almost insulting suggestion, said student sulked, thought it a waste of time, but eventually trekked over to the dimly lit—and always under-heated—center all the way over in what felt like Siberia on this particularly cold—but typically Ohio—winter morning. After shedding the three-inch-thick layer of sloppy snow accumulated from the imagined dogsled that braved the arctic tundra, what the student found not only surprised him, but further improved his writing more than any class could.
Nothing about the session seemed out of the ordinary: the tutor pleasantly asked the tutee, me, what issue regarding writing brought me through the door; the session progressed rather smoothly, picking up more momentum as examples became easier to understand; and the tutor acted incredibly professional, offering support along the way and even helped to set up recurring appointments.
“Appointments”—and the word’s plurality continued to ring in my ears until reality quickly—and harshly—slapped me in the face. Looking down at my paper, I realized that my arrogance preceded my impossibly high usage of “to be” verbs. How could this happen? How, after four years and dozens of writing courses, did my paper look like the Red Wedding scene from Game of Thrones? Her crimson ink weaved, circled, crossed out, underlined, and plastered the margins of the dissected text, and even went one step too far and took the form of a demonic-looking emoticon that still burns my soul to this day. How could she? Better yet, how could I? The whiplash of reality left me staring down at my paper while the continued question of “Mondays at 9:30?” rang out just in front of my bruised writer’s ego. Somehow, the dark forces of the universe won—I was now officially beginning my weekly sessions with Miss Red Pen and her hatred for all things Kyle’s writing.
Our next session went exactly how one would imagine: I said almost nothing and acted incredibly closed off. Little writing instruction actually occurred, but I did manage to ask for a bit of advice from a writing professional and her bluntness can hardly be matched. Without breaking a stride, she simply said: You must write better. A bit taken aback, I rebounded well and assumed this piece of writing needed drastic improvement, so I decided to write the piece over again for next week—that will show her! The week pressed on and the assignment came and went just as the last draft, but this time I felt I nailed it. Proudly walking to my third session turned quickly to dread within said session as the sequel to my own horror story played out once again in the form of a red pen and too many “weak verbs.” Finally exacerbated and fed up with pen-to-paper massacre, I decided to set my ego aside, forget that I knew everything there was to know about writing, and accepted the help that had been present all along in the form of an experienced writer.
When we first began to work on my draft, almost each and every sentence needed some form of intervention in order to escalate the skill of my writing. Slightly angered but even more humbled, I found that the sentences were not bad sentences by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, the tutor even highlighted the complexity and clarity of the sentences by stressing how much better they could be if we just eliminated the “to be.” And so the fun began! We bracketed off each sentence, starting from the very last one and working our way—some thirty pages in that session—backward toward the beginning. After we completed the last few pages of bracketing, Miss Red Pen, more happily known as Margie, explained via example how to escalate a simple sentence with the right choice of verb—and this excluded my favorite go-to list of all to-be verbs. For example, and straight from the document itself, I ushered this beautiful sentence to the grammatical guillotine:
“The importance here is rather obvious to observe and is further complicated by how impossible it is to be successful when at such a disadvantage.”
With a few quick scribbles and a witty comment or two, the tutor then showed me the marked sentence. I anticipated the to-be verbs due to the previous lashings, but she also highlighted language within the sentence that appeared to “slack”—in her words—due to their weak verb counterparts. She explained the importance of verb selection and how elevated verbs help to establish a firmer sense of understanding. After just under a minute of writing silently to herself, she slid the paper my way, and I glanced down to read a sentence that could not possibly have been my own:
“The importance of shared resources remains rather obvious, and this notion becomes increasingly more complicated by the sheer difficulty of monetary success.”
Sorcery; that was the only excuse for this that popped into my head, but how could a sentence improve so much with a few beefed up verbs? She then proceeded with the next sentence, and then the next, until Margie finally slid the paper back toward me, pointed to the door and said “Have all of these complete for next week; now go write better.” Dragging my jaw on the floor out of the center, I trudged home to what would be the most agonizing writing experience of my life. Each second of my free time, excluding sleep, though I swear that I dreamt of that red pen, was dedicated to reshaping my writing. I wrestled with verbs, screamed at a few, and I even made friends with some that I never expected to in the first place; but the most beneficial aspect of this activity came in the form of reconnecting a writer with his writing. I did not realize this at the time, and if you asked me I probably would have thrown a computer in your direction, but Margie’s words sunk in long after the portfolio had been accepted and my diploma reached its final resting place on my wall.
When Margie told me that I must write better, I immediately took offense to her “attack” on my prose instead of seeing the underlying message behind her critique—she wanted me to be a better writer and not just write a better assignment. Her practice required a great deal of reflection upon each individual sentence, which, with enough practice, progressively builds one’s vocabulary and, before I knew it, my writing simply improved and continues to do so today because of her ‘insults’ at the time. I use these techniques to this day, partially out of habit, but more out of spite to help keep myself in check. At that time, I felt as if the world could be put onto the page in whatever fashion I saw fit so long as it had a point; Margie agreed with this assertion, and still does so to this day, though she will always be that gym teacher that adds an additional knot onto the climbing rope each week knowing she helps students become writers.