Wednesday, April 18, 2007

WAS Gone Bad

By Annette Lyon

A recent discussion among some writer friends had some asking the question:

"Is WAS a bad word?"

The talk had a lot of writers developing WAS-phobia, because face it, sometimes WAS is bad to use in writing. But why? And how can you get rid of it?

The answers are pretty simple. Using WAS isn't always a bad thing, but often it is, because there's generally a better (READ: STRONGER) way of saying what you're trying to say.

Here's some simple guidelines:

1) Find a case of "was" and chances are you just found a case of "tell" instead of "show."

For example: Emily was embarrassed.

Pull out "was" and replace it with vivid details: Emily's flushed cheeks, her desire for the ground to open up beneath her and swallow her up.

Now the reader knows she's embarrassed, because you just showed it.

Search for instances of whenever your character was something, and give showing details in its place.

2) Yank WAS 90% of the time when it's connected to an ING verb.

For example: He was sitting. He was talking. He was writing.

Just say: He sat. He talked. He wrote.

Generally speaking, the plain old past tense is more effective. It's a punchier, stronger verb form.

Sometimes you can find an even stronger verb altogether. Instead of walked, how about "he stormed, he stalked, he sauntered?"

Once I did a search for "was" in a manuscript (most word processors can do this quite easily) and challenged myself to have no more than one "was" per page. This required me to find strong verbs. I amazed myself at the creative verbs I came up with! Try it sometime.

3) Passive voice.

Passive voice happens when things are acted upon instead of doing the acting themselves.

But stories and conflict are most exciting when your characters are the ones who act, so bag the passive voice whenever possible.

Example: The boy was bitten by the dog.

Just say: The dog bit the boy.

Make it direct. Passive voice adds words to sentences, and fewer words makes a tighter story anyway.

Even better, show the dog biting the boy in a scene. Give us action and conflict!

If your WAS fits another category than any of the three above, it might be just fine. Don't panic; you can keep it.

But if in doubt, double-check. Maybe you can find a way to notch up your sentence and make it stronger. And we certainly don't want to make you WAS-phobic!


Heather B. Moore said...

"Was" can be very hard to get rid of. But it's nice to see the bestsellers full of them :)

Sarah M said...

I so needed this! Thank you

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Great info!

Janette Rallison said...

It irks me that I write so much of the "to be" verb. I can spend days going through my manuscript afterward trying to change some of them--then I want to go up to unsuspecting readers and demand that they notice all of my action verbs. This is probably why writers have the reputation of being crazy . . .

Janice LeFevre said...

And Annette helps us all again! Thanks!

melissa c said...

This is great! I have never taken a writing class and I did not know this info. about "was". I will go back through and see how often I have used it.

Thank you so much!

CTW said...

Really good stuff Annette--thanks.