A Two-Letter Word that Can Deaden Your Writing

Will Newman

Welcome back to our discussion of the most important – and powerful – words in your writing … verbs.

If you were with us Monday, you recall grammar expert Karen Gordon described verbs as “the heartbeat of a sentence.” They give life, excitement, and vividness to your writing. (Click here if you missed that article.)

But not all verbs carry equal power. One verb in particular lacks any vividness, excitement, emotion … the verb ‘is’ in all its forms: is, am, was, were, and so on. Instead of being a heartbeat, ‘is’ can kill your copy.

Sometimes ‘is’ verbs are necessary (as in this sentence). But frequently their ease of use seduces us and we slip into using them.

As you saw last Monday, passive sentences weaken writing. And you cannot write a passive sentence that doesn’t rely on some form of ‘is.’

But ‘is’ verbs also deaden vividness when not used in passive sentences.

Consider this example: “John is a manager of a group of six people.”

The sentence expresses the idea clearly. But it lacks visual impact. I see John sitting at a desk, shuffling papers.

In revising, you want to replace ‘is’ with a more active verb. A reasonable replacement sits close by. If John is a manager, what does he do? He manages.

“John manages a six-person group.” Here you see John standing near his group directing, instructing, supervising them. Much more active.

Forcing yourself to replace ‘is’ opens options for explaining better. Instead of “John is a very good manager of his team,” you could say “John inspires his team.”

Replacing ‘is’ made the sentence stronger. But it also gave greater insight than the weak words ‘very good’ expressed.

Simple strategy for strengthening your writing

Using ‘is,’ ‘was,’ ‘were,’ and other forms of ‘is’ is inevitable in writing. You can't eliminate ‘is’ in the previous sentence and still have it sound normal and conversational.

But you can eliminate many instances of ‘is.’

After finishing your first draft, print it. Read your copy and circle or highlight every ‘is’ verb.

Can you replace ‘is’ with what what the person or thing does … like we did with John managing and inspiring?

“NutriWhomp is a supplement that …” becomes “NutriWhomp builds strong muscle …”

“The Mont Blanc was huge” becomes “Mont Blanc stretched skyward so its summit disappeared into the clouds.”

‘There is’ and ‘there are’ … a special case

I chalk up my using ‘there is’ and ‘there are’ to habit. We all do it. But they deaden copy.

To eliminate these copy-deadeners, simply pluck them out. Your improvement sits close by.

“There’s a special gifting waiting for you when” becomes “A special gift awaits you when …”

“There are four ways our supplement will increase your energy level” becomes “Our supplement boosts your energy level four ways.”

Eliminating ‘is’ in all its forms where possible forces you to write more concisely and more specifically. Your ideas shine through brighter … and your copy will persuade and succeed.

Come back tomorrow, when we’ll take a look at conquering some of the challenges you face when you study on your own.

Until we meet then, I’d love to have you tell me what you think so far. Comment below.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »

Click to Rate:
Average: 5.0
Published: April 6, 2016

25 Responses to “A Two-Letter Word that Can Deaden Your Writing”

  1. Writing business copy for the company Intranet and magazine can be dry; but when using those types of tips as in your post, they help liven up the copy and give it a more interesting twist. Thanks for the "reminders"!


  2. Great article Will if I may. You are a great teacher.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge of the English word.

    Marcellus Greene

    Marcellus Greene

  3. I must be a nerd in the right place to find an article on 'there is' and 'there are' simply delightful. Love love love the examples.

    Guest (Guillotine)

  4. Will, this "is" perfect! I'm working on a project, tightening up copy, and this tip is golden. Thank you!

    Guest (Dawn Damico)

  5. Great info presented simply and easy to remember - thank you so much Will!


  6. Will, thanks very much for this article. I am amazed at the results obtained simply by rereading and rewriting a piece of copy to eliminate the ineffectual "is" from sentences and replacing it with a more powerful verb. Thank you for practical tips like these which will assuredly enhance my copywriting skills.

    Guest (Steve)

  7. Mr Newman,I do agree with you about the verb "is". This verb can be become a way to distract from the focus of the copy. I love to read your content on writing no matter what the subject. You write clear and to the point.I like that cause it aroused a desire to reread a letter I started but never finished. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Aunti Vi

  8. I love to write. However, it remains a hobby, and that may always be the case. Despite lacking the funds to sign up for any of the AWAI copywriting programs, I routinely read your articles. Never before have I thought about the power of eliminating 'is' verbs. Thank you for the free advice!

    Your writing style is comfortable and familiar, and seems so natural. Have you honed this skill, or is it an innate ability (pay no mind to the second verb in the previous sentence)? I would very much like to know, but completely understand if you do not have the time to reply.

    Guest (Mo)

  9. I have just turned my face toward this career option of writing...I have some vision but no hands-on working experience in the field.

    I am curious and excited...if even I find the amount of information daunting, as I try to figure out where and how I will fit in. I am eager to see pieces fall into place as I pursue.

    Your letters are wonderful Will..each topic leaves me with some rich bit of advice and the comfort of a pat-on-the back..like I can do this thing!

    thank you! Keep 'em coming


  10. Thank you. I never realized this before.

    Guest (Rosemarie Paulling)

  11. Thanks a lot. I am the worst offender in the use of "Is", and "are". these lessons have been very nurishing and empowering. I look forward to your next teaching. Thanks again.

    Guest (Solomon Okpali)

  12. Excellent article Will! I will keep your great suggestions to heart!

    Guest (Mike Woron)

  13. This article captured my attention! I realized how much I fall into the mistake of using "is". Sometime I just don't know how to change a passive sentence and revise it. You, however, did a wonderful job explaining and questioning what does the subject do? This part a sense of clarity into my thinking process! Thank you!

    Guest (Elizabeth)

  14. That was a very exciting lesson but coming to look at the verb 'is' does it really mean that we can actually write a piece without it. can it be completely removed from a piece

    Guest (Dave Duke)

  15. Yes, I find Replacing the helping verbs with suitable direct verbs gives more punch to what we say. Enjoyed reading your article.

    JR Pai

  16. Will, I learned this in Journalism school way back when, and still occasionally forget it. Thanks for bringing me back to the fundamentals in such an interesting way.

    Guest (Richard Anson Nichols)

  17. Thanks Will. Only the second day and my bucket overflows with nuggets. All of you at AWAI give us such great advice and content. By the end of the week I'll need another bucket.

    G Frederick White

  18. Very useful information! Will be printing this out and keeping it near by for lost of future use.

    Guest (Catharine Metzinger)

  19. A two letter word that can deaden your writing. Wow, I love that we can control the common verbs such as 'is' and 'are'. We can bring a sentence to life by bringing in the action such as 'managing' a specific action - an inspired action.

    Capture Emotions help your body heal

  20. The examples are perfect...like drawing a picture. And a picture paints a thousand words. Thank you.

    Cheryl K

  21. Great tip! Thanks so much. Looking forward to more valuable tips. Thanks for sharing!

    Guest (Awo)

  22. Your comments are invaluable. Looking foreward to more.


    Guest (John Whalen)

  23. Today's issue made the sentences talk, walk and painted the real picture of copy. Thank you

    Christine Muleme

Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)

This name will appear next to your comment.

Your email is required but will not be displayed.

Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters

Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)