Should You Eliminate "Was" From Your Writing? Why Sometimes "the Rules" are Wrong.

No matter how much time and energy we put into querying agents and editors--or learning the ins and outs of self-publishing--it's all wasted if we don’t have a polished piece of work. One way to make sure your book is the best it can be is to brush up on your nuts-and-bolts writing skills. (Also a good way to save money in editing fees.)

So In honor of the kids going back to school, I’ve got a grammar lesson today. (Puts on schoolmarm hat.) 

As soon as you joined your first critique group, found a beta reader, or joined a creative writing workshop, somebody no doubt lectured you about avoiding the word “was.” In fact, you were probably admonished to eliminate all forms of the verb “to be” from your fledgling prose.

Your well-meaning mentors told you “was” is “passive,” so you must avoid it at all costs, along with adverbs, run-on sentences, and naming all of your characters “Bob”.

The people who told you this were repeating "The Rules" they heard from their own critique groups, beta readers, and workshop leaders when they started writing.

The problem is: they were wrong.

This particular rule has good intentions. But it’s based on a lack of understanding of the rules of grammar. The verb “to be” has many functions in modern English and some have nothing to do with the passive voice.

Sadly, English grammar seems to have disappeared from most schoolrooms and—unless you’ve studied another language—you may not have been taught the basics.

We have a number of past tenses in English:

Some of these tenses are created by using various forms of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” They’re called “auxiliary verbs” when they are used this way.

Simple past:

I barfed.

Present Perfect: 

I have been barfing since I ate that squirrel-meat chili.

Here an action starts in the past and comes up to the present. (“Perfect” in grammar doesn’t mean the tense is awesome. “Perfect” just means it’s finished.)

Past Continuous: 

I was barfing when Mrs. Poindexter arrived to invite me to tea.

A continuous action in the past gets interrupted by the simple past. “Was” is necessary to create this tense with the verb “to barf.” “Was” in this auxiliary function has nothing to do with the stand-alone meaning of the verb “was” meaning “existed in the past.”

Past Perfect: 

I had barfed right before she came to the door.

An action happened in the past BEFORE the past of the story. “Had” is the auxiliary verb that creates this tense. This is different from the stand-alone meaning of the verb “had” meaning “possessed in the past”.

Past Perfect continuous: 

I had been barfing for hours.

An action happened in the past over a period of time until it got interrupted by another action. The verbs “to have” AND “to be” are combined with the primary verb “to barf” to make this tense.

But these tenses have nothing to do with the Passive VOICE

Barfing was caused by squirrel chili.   

In the Passive Voice, we use forms of "to be" when the object of the verb becomes the subject of the sentence.

Or, as my mother, the English professor, would say:

The passive voice is avoided whenever possible by good writers.

Then, just to be confusing, we have the Subjunctive MOOD.  (Sometimes called the “Unreal Conditional” tense.)

If I were smarter, I’d have brought my own lunch.  

It also uses the auxiliary verb “to be”. (It’s quite the multi-purpose word, isn’t it?) The word “were” doesn’t put us in the past. It tells us he’s not actually smart.

But what about this?

If I was even smarter, I’d have shot my uncle instead of the durned squirrel.

This is incorrect grammar, because the subjunctive uses “were,” not “was.”

So “was” should be eliminated here, right?

If you’re aiming for grammatical prose, absolutely, but if you’re writing fiction, it’s probably just fine. You don’t want all your characters to sound like college professors.

What does this all mean?

It means sometimes “was” and “were” are absolutely necessary for meaning and by no means “passive.”

I was just sitting there when the squirrel bit me.

This means something different from: 

I just sat there when the squirrel bit me.

Eliminating "was" changes the meaning from “the squirrel bit me with no provocation,” to “I didn’t react when the squirrel bit me.”

However, your critique group didn’t steer you totally wrong when they told you to be wary of “was.”  
This isn’t because the word is always passive, but because it can be part of lazy sentence construction.
Beginning writers tend to write flabby sentences like this:

 There was a squirrel sitting on the picnic table and he was eating my peanut butter sandwich. He was looking at me like I was nobody to be scared of, so I decided it was time to get my shotgun.

That can be cleaned up by using simpler verbs:

A squirrel sat on the picnic table eating my peanut butter sandwich. He looked me in the eye without a speck of fear. I went for my shotgun.

See how that’s easier to read and gives a stronger, clearer image?

Another note on past tenses

Most readers say they prefer reading a book written in the past tense (although present tense is popular in some YA right now.) But writing in the past can be difficult when you get into the dreaded flashback.

Of course you can eliminate that problem by not writing any flashbacks, which I’m sure some writing teachers would recommend. But sometimes the story absolutely requires one. That’s when you go into the past perfect tense. But you don’t have to stay there, because it sounds awkward.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he had run into a gang of squirrels who had attacked him with giant acorns.

Actually, you only have to use the past perfect (the “had” construction) once or twice to introduce the flashback, then continue in the simple past and readers will automatically adjust.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he ran into a gang of squirrels who attacked him with giant acorns.

It’s all in the distant past, but we know that without all the extra “hads.”

So to answer the question I posed in the title: A search for “was” in your manuscript can indeed help clean up your prose. (What did we do before the days of the search and replace function?) But don’t say it’s because “was” is “passive” or you will make grammarians go totally squirrely.

For more on the subject of the passive voice, awesome mystery author and fellow grammar maven  Elizabeth S. Craig has a great post on it this week, too. Check her out at Laura Howard's blog. I'd also like to thank the wonderful Aussie writer and "word nerd" Karin Cox for her input. 

So Scriveners, have you been trying to eliminate the word “was” from your deathless prose? What other words have you been told to avoid? What other "Rules" turned out to be wrong for your writing?

UK's Superstar thriller writer Stephen Leather calls it "The best few dollars an aspiring writer can spend" HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE  is NOW IN PAPERBACK for only $9.99 Kindle edition, $2.99.

One place to brush up on your skills is a writers conference. A great one is the Central Coast Writers Conference in beautiful San Luis Obispo CA. It will be held on September 21st and 22nd on the campus of Cuesta College. I'll be there, teaching about how to be a writer in the e-age. 

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