Wednesday, January 21, 2015

To Was or Not To Was

As a writer, I tend to write my first drafts quickly and without too much thought to craft.  The stories about greats writers agonizing over each word? Yeah. So not me.

The good news is I’m not alone. There’s a large contingent of us fast drafters out in the world, throwing our words, and our ideas, and our plot lines onto paper as quickly as we can type. We shape the broad outlines of our stories as we create out first draft. And when we type the end, it isn’t really the end. Or, it shouldn’t be.

Because that’s when the hard work begins.

Edits are where we sharpen of our prose, and highlight the gems we unconsciously threw out onto the page during our first draft. It’s where we identify the shallow parts of our manuscript, and deepen--deepen until we have fully rounded characters and razor edge motivations.  It’s where we trim the fat from our sentences, cutting the useless words away from the necessary ones.  And it’s overwhelming.  Finding a place to begin can be paralyzing. 

So, here is a suggestion on where to begin.

Start with a search for passive verb construction, and more specifically, for the big, bad, daddy of all passive verb construction: WAS.

Highlight each instance of the word. 
Try not to pass out upon finding thousands of uses of the word was in your manuscript.
You can do this, I promise.

Take a breath, and then try to figure out how to write that sentence more concisely, and without the word was.

Here are some examples from my unedited work in progress:

The small room felt like a cell, settled deep below the arena like it was—cinderblock walls covered with a slick coat of white oil paint.

How can we fix this so that it has more impact?

How about: 

The room sat deep below the arena and felt like a small cell, complete with cinderblock walls glossed over by a coat of white paint.

Play with the words until you have the feel you’re going for concisely expressed in the sentence. 
And remember—"was" is almost never concise.

Another example:

Ramon Garcia was the only thing standing between him and a shot at the championship and he was better than Garcia.

Okay, to be fair, was isn’t the only thing wrong with this sentence. 

But how could we fix it?

How about: 
Only Ramon Garcia stood between him and his shot at the championship. And he could kick Garcia’s ass.

One final easy tip for trimming the word "was" from your manuscript: 

Any time you see "there was" in conjunction, you can almost always eliminate it painlessly.

You want examples? Here you go:
And beat up or not, there was no need for him to be an ass.

Easy fix: 
And beat up or not he didn’t need to be an ass.

Another? Here you are:
He had no reason to care, but there was no way he wanted Nick there when he picked it up.

Easy Fix? 
He had no reason to care, but he didn’t want Nick there when he picked it up.     

It will take patience and persistence, but eliminating the great majority of your uses of the word "was" will help make your writing stand out and resonate with the reader.


  1. 'Was' certainly has been a hot topic lately and you raise a number of good points. A couple of books ago, I found over 1300 uses of the word 'was' in an 80k word manuscript. I brought it down to < 300, and you know what? I've never found that many was's in any manuscript since. I learned - perhaps the hard way - so even when I'm drafting, I try not to use too many was's.
    I find new and different innocent words to abuse, instead.

  2. You learn faster than I do Liv. Lol
    Whenever I start my first edits I run the was search.
    And it's always crippling to see how many are peppered through the writing. Luckily, it's an easy fix.

  3. Awesome post! There have been lots of was discussions lately. I'll admit, passive voice and adverbs are my weaknesses. The Hemingway app has been helpful in helping me cut the was gremlins down.

  4. I want to hug and squeeze this post and call it George!!! Yes, the more you learn to spot the "was" sentences, the better first drafts you'll write without even knowing it. It takes work to craft strong, active sentences. But that's our job as writers, right? To bring to the world a beautiful story that puts the readers 'in' the story and let them experience it, not be told it. Sometimes the big bad "was" is necessary for flow, for dialogue to make sure it's not stilted and that people sound like people in everyday life. But your narrative is where your words can shine, making them active and showing. I'm not saying make "was" extinct like a dinosaur - Wasasaurus Rex- I'm just saying use it as sparingly as an adverb or exclamation point.

  5. Oooh--the Hemingway app? *runs to google apps

  6. Exactly Janet! I never cut them all out--sometimes the sentence just needs the "was" but usually--I'm a gratuitous was user. ;-)

  7. Another easy fix to eliminate "was"....look for "was" verbing. Example - The dog was barking. Just go with the stronger verb, barked. The dog barked. The doctor was standing next to the patient. - The doctor stood next to the patient.

  8. Every time I write a new manuscript, I feel so superior, like if I do a "was" search, there will only be a handful of them. Then, of course, I do the search, and I'm put in my place. I'm paying for it now, as you know. I thought it was hard writing the first draft? Ugh. Edits suck, and so does was. *grumble*

    But this is a really great post. We all write was, and this is a great reminder about how to find and fix those evil words!

  9. The timing of this is perfect for me! As Margaret said, edits do indeed suck. Thanks a billion! *also Googling the Hemingway app*

  10. I'm so glad that the post is useful! Love the easy fixes and wish every issue was that easy to fix. :-)

  11. Good point! I was getting carried away with using 'was'. LOL

    Good post! :D

  12. I really enjoyed and NEEDED this one!

  13. Love this post. And timely. Since I work for a publisher, I spend a lot of time line-editing manuscripts that agents and beta readers have slaved over (not to mention the writers themselves). And you know what? We STILL find mistakes and weak sentences. LOTS AND LOTS of mistakes (pages, even!) in agented, revised manuscripts that we contracted for publication. That's why publishers hire editors, people like me who spend our work hours going line by line through manuscripts (and find time for our own writing in the middle of that somewhere).

    My thoughts? Be a writer. Improve on the craft. Learn to sharpen your sentences. But absolutely do not use the "search" feature of MS Word to keep you from pursuing your dream. Take it from me: searching for all the mistakes in your document and counting them up one by one, can indeed be overwhelming. Writing is a mind game and fear of "was'" (or whatever the pet peeve) can paralyze you. Because no one, not even the best agents or writers, will catch everything. I'm not saying to use this as an excuse--- "oh, there are editors to do that stuff" -- but don't get discouraged, either. Just keep writing.