“Was” Killin’

WASSometimes you can’t get around using “was,” but more often than not, it’s a sign of the author’s laziness. The verb is sluggish, blah, boring. It lacks pizzazz.

It’s time to whack it out of use as much as possible and replace it with active verbs and, if necessary, rewrite entire sentences to make the sentences more active.

We’ve talked on this site before about using past tense vs what I’ll call “continuous” past for this post. Continuous past means something was in progress, “he was stealing my notes,” instead of saying it had already happened: “he stole my notes.” When you’re using “was” as part of the verb tense, you can’t help it.

But usually, you can.

The house was on a lake-side lot about fifty miles away, but I was in my super-sonic, souped-up Jaguar and could make the distance in less than five minutes. Sure enough, in four point two minutes I was exiting the car and walking up the drive. The door was unlocked when I got to it, and I went in. The house was empty, so I made myself at home in the kitchen.

I was pouring the sauce over the spaghetti when she walked in. She was stunning in her navy power suit, and her hair was swept up beautifully. It was enough to make me stop what I was doing to watch her glide into the room.

Two paragraphs, ten uses of “was.” Ouch.

I don’t think a reader who isn’t also a writer would mind this, but I’d be willing to bet the reader wouldn’t mind this either:

The house occupied a lake-side lot about fifty miles away, but I drove my super-sonic, souped-up Jaguar and made the distance in four point two minutes. I parked and walked up the drive to the front door. The doorknob twisted easily in my hand, and I went in. No one greeted me, no one answered when I called out, so I made myself at home in the kitchen.

I was pouring the sauce over the spaghetti when she walked in. She looked stunning with her up-swept hair and navy power suit. My hands stilled as I watched her glide into the room.

From ten to one, used in conjunction with the continuous past.

If you’re guilty of the “overuse of ‘was'” felony, it would be futile to use the search and replace function. Just reread your work from the beginning and hunt the monsters down. Pay particular notice to “it was.” Unless “it” serves as a pronoun you can trace to the noun it replaces, the sentence is passive–with the exception of its use in the memorable opening of a Charles Dickens novel.

The dictionary holds tons of verbs, good, strong, muscle-bound verbs. Let’s parade them out and let them strut their stuff, okay?

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to “Was” Killin’

  1. Joanne Sher says:

    Good stuff, Linda 🙂 I definitely use was too much. I will likely be asking to borrow this baby for the FaithWriters blog at some future date 🙂

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  2. pamelameyers says:

    Good article, Linda. And I agree with your tweaks made to the example and leaving in the continuous action one “was pouring”. The continuous action works well at times. And that is the key. Newbie writers sometimes tend to take instructional advice like this and overthink it and try to eradicate every “was” from their writing. You can’t do that. It’s a part of the English language and does serve a purpose.

    Back when I first was (oops there it is) writing for publication, I joined a crit group and one of the crit partners highlighted every “was” in my submission and told me to take everyone of them out. Wet behind the ears, I attacked that submission and managed to remove nearly all of them. Some needed to come out, but not all. Without “was” the writing was stilted and definitely not as readable. The insertion of “was” does not automatically make a sentence passive. That’s something a lot of new writers are led to think.

    The continuous action of “was” is not passive by the way. I learned that the hard way.

    I just wanted to post this to be sure it’s understood that “was” is not a word to be banished, but it is a word that needs to be considered one at a time to see if it is in need of being replaced before you hit the delete button 🙂

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    • Linda Yezak says:

      Of course they’re not automatically passive. Like I said in the opening, sometimes you just can’t help but to use it. But if you can replace it, do. As I said in the closing line, it’s the “over-use” of was that’s the “felony.”

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  3. K.M. Weiland says:

    Hooray for active verbs! “Was” isn’t something I try to eliminate from my writing, but I make it a challenge to replace as many of them as possible with more active constructions.

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  4. scmathisen says:

    Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! That’s me. I shall pay closer attention now. 🙂

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  5. Harliqueen says:

    A great example 🙂 And a great post.

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  6. Lynn Mosher says:

    LOL To be or not to be! That was, is, has been, will be, the question!!! Ugh! I hate wases and try to get rid of most of them. Not always an easy task. Sometimes, it’s just gotta be…to be! 😉 Great post, MSRHF!

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  7. Very informative. Good to see some solid examples of how not to use the word! I too try to euthanize every one I see. Your post “was” a great help. Rephrased: Your post helped! 🙂

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