By Prof. David Alm
An early writing mentor of mine once described “is” as a “very weak word.” I was taken aback: How could such a fundamental verb as “to be,” denoting no less than existence itself, be “weak”?
I gave it a lot of thought and realized she was absolutely right. Statements of mere existence often hold no meaning, convey no information, and create no visual for a reader. They encourage flat, boring statements of fact. But if you strive to omit any form of “to be” from your writing, you have no choice but to find richer ways of writing what you want to write. “There is a couch in the small room” becomes “The orange couch, flush against one wall, faces a credenza a mere seven feet away in the narrow room.”
When I teach Magazine Writing, I have the students do zero-stakes exercises, to inspire them to be more deliberate and intentional with their language without fear of it impacting their grade. One of my favorites is to have them write descriptions of the room we are in, omitting all forms of “to be.” The results prove, I think, what my mentor said to me all those years ago.
While I’d never tell anyone to never use “to be” again–I’ve used it five times in this intro alone, not including the examples, I do believe that we should all use it more deliberately. I think you’ll agree that this description of Room 503, written by the fall Magazine Writing class and edited by me, is anything but weak.
Ode to Hunter North 503
Room 503 looks like it hasn’t been touched since the ‘80s. Bubbles from water damage poke out from behind the eggshell paint of the walls. Fluorescent lights brighten only part of the room, as half the bulbs sparked out long ago. One twitches.
Purple sound-absorbing boards line the room shaped like a box with one corner kicked in. Desks flush against the walls hide a mess of wires; some supply power or internet to the desktop computers, others only contribute to chaos. All the funding for the room went towards the computers.
Mismatched chairs sit in front of each glistening iMac, broken and sagging with the weight of class after class, year after year. Where did the luxurious faux leather chair come from, and where did the arm of one desk chair go?
Light filters in through the window and reveals fingerprints on the computer screens. Dust clings to the vents overhead. A soft, cool breeze flows in. Students sit in their fall wardrobes, leaving T-shirt weather behind. Outside, cars honk, clouds cover the sky, no blue in sight. A siren grows louder as it passes on the street below.
In the center sits a folding table that dips in the middle. Students scatter around, a vain attempt at socially distancing. Clicks of keyboard keys as they attempt to describe the classroom. Fluorescent lighting. Purple fabric walls. Blank white board.
White, rectangular speakers sit on a shelf underneath the television, emitting static noise while the room sits quiet. If anything were played through these speakers, the room would no longer seem so still.