The Secret Way to Energize Any Kind of Writing (Even Poetry!)

So you’re in the editing cycle of the literary washing machine, and it’s a little off-balance. Your prose (or verse) could use some zing. Verve. A shot in the arm. Did you know you could do all that by simply eliminating one group of words from your writing? It’s true.

credit: Dariuszka,

credit: Dariuszka,

Hunting for and deleting all variations of the verb “be” has a surprisingly energizing effect on your writing. It connects your subjects more closely to their actions, shuts down the passive voice (a common culprit of bogged-down language), and forces you to use active, interesting, inventive verbs move each sentence forward.

This type of editing, officially described in 1965 by linguist Dr. David Bourland, is called E-Prime.

Princeton’s official E-Prime website describes it thusly:

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”.

E-Prime brings the subject and object much closer together, and makes their relationship much more clear. To use a sophomoric example: Saying “Ann felt hot” is much less ambiguous than “Ann was hot,” given the multiple English meanings of the word “hot.”

It also indicates an operational, rather than perceptual, relationship between nouns. Since you can’t say, “Ann was at the restaurant for two hours,” using E-Prime, you’re forced to get a little more gritty and graphic. Instead, say something like, “Ann waited at the restaurant for two hours.” Do you feel the extra dimension the specific “waited” brought to that sentence? Now the reader can imagine Ann glowering as she sips a glass of red wine and looks at her watch, rather than simply appearing on a restaurant bar stool, as though out of thin air, and vanishing two hours later.

How to Do It

When most writers first hear about E-Prime, the reaction can be a bit skeptical. “Be” is such an integral part of  the English language that it’s hard to imagine writing without it. But it can be done! Here’s an example, in which I rewrite this very paragraph.

When most writers first hear about E-Prime, the reaction can be a bit skeptical they usually express some skepticism. “Be” is such an integral part of the English language that it’s hard to imagine writing without it. Getting rid of the common verb “Be” seems impossible, because it appears in so many instances throughout the English language.  But it can be done! But you can do it! Here’s an example, in which I rewrite this very paragraph. Take a look at this example, which I rewrote using E-Prime.

Try it! The next time your writing starts to sound a bit stilted or too ordinary for your taste, try weeding out the ineffable using E-Prime. 

For more super grammar nerdiness, check out Robert A. Wilson’s easy-to-read discussion of E-Prime’s role in science writing and in operational thinking.

Categories: Writing Tips
  • Aaron Arm

    I’ve heard about this technique, and have even had to implement it when editing for a student whose professor mandated it. It’s a good thing to keep in mind, but it can also be really painful. Once in a while you hit an “is” where any other way just seems wrong.

    • Shanan

      Aaron, I totally agree! I think the flip side of the E-Prime coin is that people decide they like it SO much they become prescriptive. Diversity is good. I suggest using this tool when you’re at a rhetorical impasse; it’s a fabulous lens through which to view your writing and can help you spot problems, particularly in sluggish tone and boogery character development.

      But there are cases when you need is. Also, cases where business writers MUST use passive voice to avoid assigning blame. Judicious application required.

  • Jim Bradrick

    Or read ‘Quantum Psychology’, a fascinating book also by RA Wilson.

  • Pingback: Editing using E-Prime and reducing repetition, repetition, rep… | Julie Stock - My Writing Life()

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