Why I Declared War on Be Verbs

The only thing more difficult than learning scholarly writing may be trying to teach scholarly writing. Very few if any of us are well trained to teach writing skills or how to successfully navigate the writing process.  For many years, I did what I think most professors do. I had a long list of do’s and don’ts for students. However, I ultimately decided this way of teaching writing simply didn’t work. Even if students used the list, they didn’t learn how to improve their writing. Instead, I boiled the list down to a single item and declared war on be verbs.

Photo credit: kanegen

The last iteration of my writing do’s and don’ts list was 27 items long. It was out of hand.  

I’m a big believer in the philosophy that students will only learn and remember a handful of things from class. I try to identify three or four ideas that students can latch onto and include in their professional careers.

Yet, I wasn’t doing this in writing. I was asking students to do 27 things and then I would get frustrated in a future semester that students were making the same mistakes. They were meeting my specifications, but they weren’t truly learning.

I decided that I wanted to identify one thing that I could make sure students were learning and changing how they write.

I went back to my list and tried to find out where I could get the biggest benefit.  What one thing could I have them do that would make the biggest improvement on their writing.

Out of this came my new rule: No using be verbs in papers for my class.

I don’t mean use them less. I mean not at all. Zero. Zilch.

If I jumped up and down like a crazy person about having no be verbs in their papers, I knew students would remember that.

What I found is that by eliminating be verbs, students often fixed many of the issues I would often identify in their papers.

Passive voice.

Weak verbs (really weak writing in general).

Unclear subjects.

Run on sentences.

Sentence structure.

All of these and other aspects ended up getting fixed in the process of eliminating be verbs.

No, this doesn’t catch all passive voice. There are instances where the prose can get a little awkward removing all of the be verbs.  However, it fixes many of the errors and doesn’t require a great knowledge of grammar to improve one’s writing.

I also know that students will immediately go back to using be verbs on other papers they write.  However, if they just use 80% of the be verbs that they used prior to me being a lunatic on the subject, I firmly believe their writing is substantially improved.

The students hate the process.  They think I am hazing them (which is true). They think I’m trying to brainwash them (which is also true).

However, I’ve had many students realize it does help their writing.  Even if they don’t know all of the reasons why, they know their writing is better.

And that’s enough for me to continue fighting the good fight.

Down with the be verbs!