“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 stormed, strode, or 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!
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.
Instead, 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 when in doubt about a stray WAS, try to get rid of it. There’s a good chance you can find a way to notch up your verbs and make your sentence stronger.
Annette Lyon is Utah’s 2007 Best of State medalist for fiction and 2007 Whitney Award finalist. Her sixth novel, Tower of Strength, will be released March 2009. She edits for Precision Editing Group and blogs at The Lyon’s Tale.Stumble it!