Is It Bad to Say “It Was Bad”?

In the past few months I’ve been alerted to words that writers should avoid. “Had,” “that,” any word ending in -ly and now “was.”

In a recent meeting of my critique group someone said that “was” imparts an inherent passivity to a sentence or paragraph. I agree that the true passive voice often used in academic writing, as in “A was killed by B,” has (almost) no place in fiction writing. But does that apply to any instance of “was”?

This is a tough one.  You can’t just sweep through a piece of writing vacuuming up every instance of “was” (or its plural cousin “were”). The easiest targets are instances of the true passive voice, such lumpy atrocities as “The sandwich was eaten by him.”  But what about “The house was red”? I don’t think “The house had been painted red,” is any improvement. “Had been” is “was” in disguise, isn’t it? “Was” (a three-letter, one-syllable word!) is indispensable in certain situations.

And what about “is”? “Is” is just “was” in present tense, but I don’t hear anyone accusing it of excessive passivity (probably because most fiction is written in the past tense).

Reading something at work the other day, about standards for metadata, I found the following:  “Contexts are of two kinds: Events in which (or as a result of which) something changes, and States, in which they don’t.” In writing, descriptions of linked events are desirable because they contain action, but descriptions of states, in which nothing changes, must be regarded with suspicion and kept to a minimum. As though description is an ever-present irritant, like ants at a picnic.

I’ve already written a post about this, I realize.

This is the paragraph a couple of my fellow critiquers pounced on (with the offending words italicized):

Soon we were clear of the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance.  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady breeze, a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

As someone pointed out, every sentence has an occurrence of “was” or “were.” After some denial and grumbling, I made changes:

By the time we left the harbour and cleared the treacherous ledge near its entrance, it was plain that we were to have one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  A steady breeze blew, a little south of west, ten knots, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed with pink and gold and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

So now there are 3 “was/weres”, rather than 6, but is the result that much better?

With respect to my fellow writers, I think that before counting instances of  “was” (or any other word) in a sentence or paragraph, the critic should ask whether that sentence or paragraph reads smoothly and contributes to the story. “Was” after all, is the past tense of the verb “to be.” Being something or having a specific quality is inherently not an event but a state. I am old. You are young. He was young once. We will all be dead some day. Which is why it’s stupid to quibble about every instance of  “was”.

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