Declare war on “was.” How to write a novel — part 9

Was shotLet’s be clear from the start; I don’t like the word “was.” It’s evil.

That said, I use it. Lord, do I ever. In fact, I probably use it too much. And the really sad thing is: I know better. I understand the power that one specific, stupid, little word has. Sadly, most writers don’t understand it, and I include a wide range of accomplishment when I say “most” writers. Somewhere during our education, whether public, private, or in-home, we should each have been warned about the consequences of using this word in prose, if nowhere else. But I’ll wager only a tiny fraction of the English speakers on Earth were lucky enough to get that lesson.

Why is it such a big deal? Simple. Think of the verb “was” as a type of cancer. It creeps into our writing quietly and unobtrusively. It nestles into sentences without the least bit of disturbance, and it occupies the space that ought to be dedicated to a real verb. When we look at it, or read it out loud, we just slide right over it as if it weren’t there.

The problem is: it is there! And in 9 out of 10 cases, the sentence could have been written better. Tossing “was” into a sentence relieves the writer of working at making the sentence more interesting. Let me show you what I mean with a few examples.

DPC_35339854_plus1- Mary was a beautiful girl who lived in the house next door. An okay sentence, I suppose, but quite ho-hum.

2- Mary, a beautiful girl, lived in the house next door. Marginally better, and we nuked “was,” but the sentence is still bland and doesn’t accomplish much.

3- I often caught sight of Mary, the beautiful girl next door. Still better, and we get a hint about the observer. But it needs a little more work to be “good.”

4- I saw my beautiful neighbor, Mary, seventeen times yesterday. Now we’re on the trail of an actual story!

Let’s try a couple more.

revolverA- The murder weapon was a .38 special, a cop’s gun–the same as Joe’s. He carried one for years. [Yawn] This is okay as far as it goes.

B- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Like Joe’s. His hand fit it like a glove. Better, but the glove cliche’ is… I dunno… meh.

C- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Joe instinctively wrapped his hand around his own. Not only did we lose the “was,” we added action.

So, how important is this “was” business? It’s as important as you wish to make it. Consider scanning something you’ve written, and highlight every instance of “was.” Then, go back and see if you can “write around” the word. Revise the sentence until it doesn’t need the damn thing. I’m willing to bet a week’s pay that the sentence without “was” is better. And 9 times out of 10, I’ll be right. Imagine having odds like that in Vegas!

What about the rest of the stative verbs (is, were–any form of “to be”)? It’s the same issue, just on a different scale. If you only tackle “was” you’ll solve 90% of the problem. Do the anti-was revisions often enough, and they’ll become automatic. For now, however, try using the word as a warning flare: Look Here, dammit! Here’s your chance to write something interesting. Someone once said a good writer can figure out how to put a surprise on every page. Why not start with the Was Warning Flares?

Pay attention to those them, then do something about ’em, and your writing will improve. I absolutely guarantee it!

Next up: Readers as conspirators.



About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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4 Responses to Declare war on “was.” How to write a novel — part 9

  1. Debbie Liss Patton says:

    My high school English teacher hated for anyone to use “get” or “got”.

  2. joshlangston says:

    Interesting. *My* college speech teacher always got after me for saying “git” instead of “get.” But when it comes to writing, my pet peeve is definitely the overuse of “was.”

  3. kathils says:

    Some kindly gentleman beat the ‘was’ out of me. *smiles sweetly*

  4. joshlangston says:

    And you’ve a better person because of it, right? Ahem. RIGHT?

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