Monday, July 7, 2014

Not Using "Was"

Okay, really quick! Go to your WiP and do a search for the word WAS. How many do you come up with? Musketeer's Daughter, my YA historical novel, has 943 out 102,748 words. Thank goodness it's only a first draft!

All of my writerly life I have heard to not use was because it is a passive voice and passive voice makes for a passive read and readers like powerful stories that stick to their ribs. I cam across J. Timothy King's post on 7 ways to eradicate the copulative [word was]. After reading it, that was when I suddenly became obsessed with its abolition.

Here are some examples from another WiP that had me busting my brains to remove the offending word:

This was not home, nor was it anywhere near.
TO
It’s very strangeness declared he had entered a realm far-removed from home. ...


There was no doubt where the Princesses headed, a cobblestone lane led the way through the thick forest.
TO
A cobblestone lane led the way through the thick forest, leaving no doubt where the Princesses headed. ...

A minute ago, I happened across another post from Meljean, declaring the mistake writers do by advising newbie counterparts NOT to using was. WAS isn't as bad as we think. Okay, conflicting time! Click here to read her post.

Now my obsession to destroying WAS has slowed, but I am not sure anymore which is true. However, I did some more research and asked a friend I trust, my editor, on what he thinks about WAS. This is what *Clay Gilbert has to say about the infamous word:

"The main trick of avoiding the passive is to make sure you don't have a lot of sentence constructions where PEOPLE are having things done to them. You don't want your PEOPLE consistently being acted upon, but objects--well, that's what they're for."

Brilliant, Clay! It's so much clearer now.

What are your thoughts on WAS?


*Clay has a fabulous work of art in his Trilogy. Drop by and say hi!




11 comments:

  1. I'm very aware when I use 'was' and some of the other common passive verbs but I can't get rid of them all without making awkward or confusing sentences. Sometimes 'was' is the best word.

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  2. I like what your editor friend says. Was has its uses, especially for creating a short, punchy sentence. When we edit was out, we usually create a longer sentence. Sometimes these become so convoluted that the original using was is preferable.

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  3. Elizabeth, I'm in the editorial process on my soon-to-be published novel. Your advice for eradicating the word was came right on time. I will consider your words as I edit mine. I'm going to check out Meljean's posts you mentioned. Thanks!

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  4. I love your editor's advice--I'll have to make a note of that. I plan on doing a search through my manuscript and fixing all the instances where "was" is unnecessary. I found a sentence that said "I was feeling..." I cringed and changed it to "I felt..."

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  5. Sometimes, there's no better way to word a sentence than to use that word. I just had to do a search and destroy on my own manuscript and got rid of quite a few.

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  6. Hi Elizabeth, great post. I too have the bad habit of over-using the word was. I will check my manuscript and see how many times I have used it.

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  7. Not every use of 'was' is passive, but most uses of it make boring sentences. So, I think it's good to look for was in our writing because it's an opportunity to make the writing better. But sometimes it is necessary. Even our favorite authors use it occasionally.

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  8. I'm very suspicious of any writing advice that has authors in a panic trying to eliminate common English words that some expert has banned. If you have any sort of a sense for language--- pretty essential in a would-be author--- you will generally eliminate some of the offending words. When you leave the word in place, know that to the reader common words like 'was' are all but invisible, unless used four times in one sentence or something.
    I think young writers spend too much time worrying about eliminating 'bad' words like 'was' when they should be working on the 'big picture' aspect of their stories.

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  9. It's good to be aware of how many passive verbs are used and to take them out where possible. However, I spent a long time being fanatical about taking out all adverbs and was/were from my writing. Then I realized it was choppy and sometimes convoluted -- it didn't flow -- whereas all my favorite writers had casual, easy-to-read styles that included adverbs and passive verbs. Now I'm a proponent of the prose being in service to the story, not the other way around, and it's better if most of the prose is invisible. For me, it's all about the story and letting a reader read as easily as possible. But I write horror and thrillers where readers read quickly. One size doesn't fit all, and every writer must create their own style/voice. Have a lovely weekend!

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  10. I like Clay Gilbert's advice, and meljean's. I try not to use "was" any more than necessary, but sometimes it is unavoidable, and that's fine. Thanks for an enlightening post!

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  11. I agree with Clay Gilbert's advice, and meljean's. I try not to use "was" any more than necessary, but sometimes it's unavoidable, and that's fine. Thanks for an enlightening post!

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