Let’s Talk about WAS

“Was” is a nasty, dirty, filthy word, am I right? “Was” means, oh my God, you are writing in the passive voice, and all passive voice must be eradicated from your Work in Progress, or you are going to fall into the fiery depths of writing hell when you die.

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Indies are told it’s bad, that you need to take it out of your writing. Even when I edit for others, I will find it, give the authors the bad news that yep, they used it 4,000 times in a 70,000 word WIP.

But just how bad is it?

I’m reading The Snowman by Jo Nesbø right now. I love it. I saw the trailer for the movie, and I wanted to read the book before I watched the movie. (Chances are after I finish the book I won’t want to watch the movie anymore, but that’s a different blog post.) But you know what I saw when I opened up the book? Well, yeah, I saw the front matter, the title page. But what was the first sentence of the first paragraph?

It was the day the snow came.

A book by an acclaimed author whose book was turned into a movie started his book with passive voice. He could have written, Snow came that day or It happened the day it snowed. Something. But he didn’t. Why didn’t he? Why didn’t his editor catch it? Ask him to fix it? I wonder how many “was” words he uses in his book.

When should you write out “was?” Here’s what I think.

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When it’s an indicator of tell, not show.
This is another no-no in the indie world. Always, always show, not tell. And for the most part, I agree. Description is always a lot better than telling your reader something.
When I was editing Don’t Run Away one of my little triumphs was:
Dane was livid.
I turned it into:
Dane trembled with rage.
You can see right away that’s a better way to go. I didn’t do it so much as to get rid of the “was” word, but I wanted my readers to picture what Dane’s anger looked like.

When the sentence simply sounds better without it.
This is tricky because how do you know? You can try to rewrite your sentence, but if you can’t get it to make sense without “was,” leave it alone.  Writers use “was” because it’s easy. It’s a lot easier to say, The sky was blue, rather than, The blue sky shone; not one cloud masked its brilliance. But not every sentence needs to be written that way–it’s up to you as the author to pick and choose, to decide where you want to put your energy.

When you freaking use it too many times. 
It always sucks when you do a search to see how many times you’ve used a crutch word. Just, 500, that, 1,000. Nodded, smiled, rolled eyes, shrugged.  “Was” is no different. If you have a ton of them, it could mean you are doing more telling than showing, that you’ve gotten a bit lazy, and you need to examine your WIP to see what you can fix. A paragraph describing a room like this:

The bedroom was small. A bed was pushed against the wall to make room for a desk that was filled with papers. A dog was sleeping at the foot of the bed, and a picture was hung crookedly on the wall. The rug was dirty, and the closet door was open, revealing clothes hanging haphazardly on their hangers.

Can be turned into this:

A dog lay on an unmade bed that had been pushed against the wall to make room in the small space. A desk filled with paper sat under an open window.  A rug that had seen better days lay in front of a closet that hadn’t been closed properly, and Janet wrinkled her nose in distaste at the mess inside. She straightened the crooked picture on the wall before leaving. Jack wasn’t there. She’d have to look for him somewhere else. 

Not only are you getting rid of “was” words, you are getting rid of repetition. I’ve edited for a few people whose paragraphs sound the same. Subject + verb + the rest of the sentence. If you want to get words down and move on, that’s fine. Some writers like to worry about the editing later. But please do go back and mix up your sentence structure. Sometimes this includes getting rid of “was”, sometimes it means starting a sentence with a prepositional phrase.

When you can fix the verb.
Don’t say, He was standing say He stood. She was watching turns into She watched. This is an easy fix and will save you some words too, if your WIP is bloated and you need to cut it down.

Rewriting some sentences that have “was” in them can make a sentence or paragraph stronger, can show your reader something instead of telling them what is going on.

But I also think that “was” is a lot like “said” in that it is invisible to a reader. The room was dark, and Stacy stumbled. We know what that means. We can picture that just as clearly as Stacy couldn’t see two inches in front of her face. She didn’t know what lurked in the shadows of the bedroom, and she tripped over God knew what when she gingerly took a step inside. Did the second example sound better? Maybe it did, but it’s also exhausting to read that all the time. It’s also exhausting to write that way. If every author tried to eradicate “was” from their writing, every book would be as thick as a Stephen King novel.

There is room for “was,” and I’m not as hardcore to get rid of it as I used to be. As long as you’re conscious of how many you have, if some of them can be replaced with something stronger and you do, then you’ll be okay.

Sometimes we can get too caught up in following every single rule out there. And it’s disheartening to be trying your best when you read trad-pubbed books doing things you’re trying not to do. Give yourself a little break. Keep on eye on the numbers, take your beta-readers’ opinions to heart. Listen to your editor.

Avoiding “was” hell won’t matter too much if you’ve trapped yourself in editing hell. Find a happy medium. Your sanity, and your readers, will thank you.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about WAS

  1. Okay, so I had to check. My new 80K word manuscript has 1K “was” and 1K “that” (but only 240 “just” and I guarantee those are all inside dialog). I’m sure I’m strange, but usually think the “before” versions of example sentences are better than the “fixed” versions. Like your Dane example. I think both are fine, but they don’t mean the same thing, from a storytelling point of view. So if you meant he was livid, then say that. If you meant he trembled with rage, then say that. He might be quietly seething with rage, or he might be livid without any outward appearance at all. Perhaps what you want the reader to know is that he was livid, but the particular expression of that is not relevant to the point being made in that moment. Or maybe you want the reader to imagine how that would manifest on their own, given their unique picture of that character in their mind’s eye. Filling the paragraph with details that don’t matter doesn’t make it better. And taking away the joy of the reader imagining things the way they like can be a negative on its own.

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    1. hahaha, well you made me look. in 68,000 words of book two of my trilogy, I had 900 “was” words. Ratio-wise, that’s more than yours. but I do caution using it as a crutch and/or using the same sentence structure over and over again. you do need some variation or your writing reads boring.

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