Eliminate ‘to be’ (and other tips) to make your SFU News stories sing

November 28, 2019

Want to improve your writing?

Earlier this year, editor Diane Luckow led a communicators’ storytelling workshop and walked participants through basic newswriting – ledes, headline and the inverted pyramid. She gave pointers on headlines, and on how to hook people with a lede and keep them reading.

A PDF of her workshop is here.


Her basic advice: Keep stories short and use strong, descriptive verbs. And one tip critical tip – avoid the verb ‘to be’ (is, am, are, was, were). It weakens your writing.

For example:

Smith’s report is a most valuable contribution to our understanding of the issue.

Replace the ‘is a’ with a strong verb:

Smith’s report contributes significantly to our understanding of the issue.

One of Luckow’s pet peeves is the zombie noun ­– a verb transformed into a boring noun using suffixes such as -ion, ity, -ment, -ism, -ary, -is (discussion, clarity, development, commentary, analysis) and usually paired with ‘of’ and ‘to be’. Eliminating zombies will significantly improve your writing style.

For example:

The poem is an explosion of energy.


The poem explodes with energy.


As for resources, Luckow recommends bookmarking the SFU Editorial Style Guide (Dr. is not a title at SFU unless the person is a physician, dentist or veterinarian).

The Canadian Press Style Guide and Caps and Spelling are also excellent reference books for newswriting.

Have a great idea for an SFU News story? Please submit your idea through our story submission form and help us tell the university’s stories.