Become a Master Editor by Practicing E-Prime

credit: SavageChickens.com
credit: SavageChickens.com

Don’t let bad editing happen to you.

Because writers get so close to their work, self-editing (a critical step whether you plan to self-publish or seek out a traditional publishing arrangement) can become an obstacle to success. However, applying the principles of E-Prime to your writing is a great way to view your work anew while staying extremely close—and often, getting even closer—to the spirit of your story.

What’s E-Prime?

Coined in 1965 by linguist Dr. David Bourland, the linguistic methodology of E-Prime proposes that removing all forms of the verb “to be” from English speaking and writing creates a more honest form of communication with a clearer sense of perspective and a more defined subject/object relationship. As Princeton University’s E^ website (because of course Princeton has an E^ website) explains:

Some people use E-Prime as a mental discipline to filter speech and translate the speech of others. For example, the sentence “the movie was good” would correspond to the E-Prime sentences “I liked the movie” or “the movie made me laugh”.

Now, some people feel that E-Prime constitutes a veiled attack on the passive voice. Because all passive statements contain a form of the verb “to be,” E-Prime removes all passive language from writing by default. While the majority of passive statements could do with some massive improvement, in some cases, active voice doesn’t sound natural. (For an excellent in-depth discussion of the philosophy of perspective and object observation behind E-Prime, visit litemind.)

So E-Prime does not apply in every single situation. When SHOULD you use it?

What E^ Does for Writers

Hunting for “be” verbs = hard work. You’ve got to read every word of every sentence to ferret them all out. And when self-editing, focusing your attention this way allows you to catch a ton of hidden typos, while still maintaining some objective distance from your writing.

This doesn’t mean that before you send out your work, you should scrub your writing of all forms of the verb “to be.” Sometimes, E-Prime has the most value as a mental exercise, or a way of looking at your words through fresh eyes. Even when you don’t replace every “be,” “is” and “was,” you catch typos, subject/verb agreement errors, nonsensical sentences and all manner of mistakes that slip past you in the first draft phases. Think of E-Prime as a black-belt level editing exercise.

Practice Using E-Prime

Take ten minutes, and edit a recent Tweet, comment, status update, text message, or other short piece of writing using E-Prime. Share your experience (and even your edited text!) in the comments. What do you think of the result, and do you like it more or less than before?