Thursday, March 25, 2010

It “Was” Horrible – and ways to make it better!

It's a nasty word. It drives editors to distraction, causes agents to go into anaphylactic shock, and writing mentors to slosh red ink around like blood. From the moment we start to write, we hear “NEVER USE WAS!”

However, they rarely say why. And even rarer do they give advice on how to fix it! But the solution to “was-less” prose is actually quite simple. In this post, I'll give some pointers showing how to replace it!

First, though: Why is “was” wrong? Well, because it's passive. It's the quickie way of saying something, and it makes the writing sound lazy. “She was angry” is much less exciting than “Her teeth gritted and her fists bulged in her pockets.”

Despite the taboos, “was” is still a perfectly good word, and in some cases, it belongs. But chances are you use it too much, just like 99.9% of all writers. The good news is that it's surprisingly easy to get rid of!

Here are a few common “was” phrases I've seen. Below each, I've rewritten the sentence to get rid of “was.”

The floor was cold under his bare feet.
His bare toes curled against the cold floor.

She was too tired to keep her eyes open.
Exhaustion dizzied her and her eyes drooped shut.

The sun was warm on his face.
Rays of sunshine beat down, hot on his face.

The food was spicy.
Heat tingled through his mouth as he ate the food.

Notice how much more powerful and interesting the rewrites are than the original sentence? Grammatically, there's nothing at all wrong with the originals, but by replacing “was” with active verbs, the impact of the writing takes a giant leap for the better. It's a subtle trick, but it guarantees a better piece of writing—and it guarantees editors and agents won't react to your work like it was poison ivy!

It's actually simple to find replacements for “was,” especially on an edit. (I often let the word fall where it may when I'm churning out a scene, and go back and replace them later.) Try it yourself – go through your own writing and find seven or eight “was” sentences, and rewrite them using active verbs and sentence structure. Do it on a regular basis, and pretty soon it'll become second nature!

One warning – don't try to replace “was” in dialogue. Like it or not, we murder grammar when we talk, and if you try to make all dialogue perfect writing, it'll sound stilted.

And don't forget, there are some places that definitely merit a “was.” If you think you've got a place where the word works, go with it! Just like any other rule, this one can be broken successfully.

What are some of the strategies YOU employ to avoid using “was”?


Liberty Speidel said...

Frequently, I try to find a more active verb. I just went through and removed a bunch of 'was's from my manuscript using this technique.

As you said, however, there are a lot of instances where you just can't cut the word--and usually it's because it makes it stilted, in or out of dialogue.

Linda Yezak said...

Good post, Nina. Stamp Out Passivity!

Lady Blanche Rose said...

Oh, this will definitely be something to keep in mind as I edit my story (which I will be sending you on the FTN Forum!). Thanks for posting it!

by Pegg Thomas said...

Good post! How to do a wasectomy... :)

Nina Hansen said...

So glad you all liked this post. :)

Hey, Lady Blance, that is so exciting - can't wait to read it!

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