To be or not to be? Maybe not!

I’m reading a lot of posts these days about “crutch” words, weak words, and other words that writers should avoid. One of these pariah words is “was.” “Was”? Really? The past tense of the word designating existence or essence? “I am what I am” and similar declarations come to mind. I remembered a post I wrote in 2012 about this very topic. Instead of reposting it, I reworked it here to explore the issue in a more nuanced way.

In a recent meeting of my critique group [in 2012], 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 [for me].  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 about standards for metadata [in my job at the time], 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 fiction 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.

With respect to my fellow writers [I argued in 2012], 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”.

Okay, end of sermon circa 2012. Back to 2019. The nub of the problem is events vs. states. All you can do with a state is describe it. Describing something or someone in past tense is bound to require the word “was.” But too much description in a novel or story is about as welcome as ants at a picnic. Excessive description is surely the stuff readers skip (harking back to Elmore Leonard and his much-quoted rules).

Instead of devising some sort of circumlocution to avoid the forbidden word, maybe we should focus on chunks of description in which it’s found, and ask ourselves if they’re necessary.

This is the paragraph a couple of my fellow critiquers pounced on back in 2012, with the offending words emphasized:

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, reducing the instances of “was” and “were” from six to three (although “had been” is a member of the “was” family. This is how the paragraph looks in the published version of the book (except for the italics, of course).

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.

Better, but not perfect. Returning to that paragraph yet again, with a freshly sharpened editor’s scalpel in hand, I could do the following (added words in ALL CAPS):

Soon we were clear of OUTSIDE the harbour and past 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 SOUTHWESTERLY breeze a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated, RIPPLED the dark blue 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.

I deleted the weather forecast and the narrator’s musings, and whisked the snow-capped mountains out of sight. Here is the result, cleaned up:

Outside the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance, a steady southwesterly breeze rippled the dark blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sky, a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

Not a “was” in sight. Even I have to admit it’s better. I could work through the entire book (Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey), making improvements like these. But I’m not going to. That book is beyond the editing stage. It is what it is.

Image by Bischoff49 from Pixabay

61 comments

  1. Getting rid of most of the was and were and had beens is a great improvement. I know in my earlier works I used them far too much. We learn as we go along. I am reading a book right now and the was and weres are getting on my nerves. A great post, Audrey.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have a serious problem with ‘was’. Depending on my mood, I sometimes find it impossible to reduce them. I once made the mistake of deleting all bad words from my WIP, only to find the result literally unreadable!
    Seriously though, I think we can be too fussy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bless you! The slavish obedience to ‘rules’ without any understanding of what lies behind them annoys the shyte out of me. Your final version of that paragraph is both cleaner and more lyrical BUT…the original is in tune with the voice of the entire series. You made a deliberate decision to write in that voice and I, for one, enjoyed it immensely. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I did. It was one of the things I found most enjoyable in all four of the Herbert West books. It took me out of the here and now, into another place and time, and isn’t that precisely what fiction is supposed to do?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes!!! There are so many ways to do that; trying to make rules is tricky. And of course not all readers agree on what constitutes a good read. Which gives us bloggers endless opportunities to discuss the subject.

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    1. That’s good to know, actually. Reading is a complicated business. Readers aren’t all the same and approach a piece of writing with different expectations. That’s why writers should (ha!) approach writing “rules” with reservations. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I recently read The Little Stranger by Waters (you’d like it, I think), and I saw lots of was’s. They didn’t bother me. I read another book recently (won’t be naming it) with lots of was’s that irritated me. When I compared the two, I found that the was-passages in Water’s protagonist’s internal musings and the author’s word paintings captivated me. In the other book, the many instances of past progressive tense bugged me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right, Priscilla — that looks like my kind of book. I’ve requested it from my local library. And it’s not so much that the word “was” is inherently bad, it’s how it’s used that can create a poor reading experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a very instructive post Audrey. Much wisdom. I like the illustration of how the process worked in your case.
    Must be reblogged

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My pleasure.
        I shall have to bear these lessons in mind.
        Very important when writing something with a complex plot and a number of characters, avoid too much ‘fluff’ and let the reader concentrate on the main issues.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Enlightening discussion, but I would prefer leaving in the description of the mountains across the strait. It just doesn’t seem complete without those mountains – unless of course there’s a fog bank blocking them out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points, John. The Olympic Mountains may be worth a “were” or two, an in fact they remain in the published book. And there often is a fog bank; in fact, I mention it elsewhere in that book. Thanks for your comment!

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  7. I love your finished product, but in a way, the first one appeals more because it’s natural. It sounds like the character, whereas the final version is more narrative.
    I’ve learned to take my critique group’s comments with a grain of salt. Fix what needs fixing, but not at the cost of your unique voice.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Good stuff Audrey. A tightly wound passage, now. That’s the target. Say the most with the fewest.

    The way I’ve learned, a hard lesson indeed, is that was and were are “telling”.

    “It was cold, dark, and dreary when Jacob first knocked on Ebenezer’s door.” Here we’re *explaining* the conditions when this event occurred. Explaining is another word for telling.

    “Jacob slapped the knocker on the door, the cold metal appeared as a face in the dark.” Describing the conditions, showing the reader the scene as it happened..

    Bob was driving… They were skiing… Terran had been diving as… All explanation.

    That’s how I see was and were these days. If you’re explaining your story, then you’re telling the reader what happened — not showing them how it happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m reading a book I’ve been asked to review. It follows what I think of as all the modern advice – no adverbs, no run on sentences, no long descriptions. the result? Short choppy sentences, lack of flow and puzzling situations and scenes. I’m not suggesting a page and a half describing a daisy but this publisher has taken it all to extremes.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Audrey, an eye-opener of a post! I too have read about the problems with ‘was/were’ but never seen such a clear example of the difference their absence makes. The final piece is a beautiful and powerful piece of writing that grabs the attention of the reader from the very first and holds it fast! I’ll approach my own writing on a look out for ‘was/were’! Many thanks for such an informative article.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I have a love-hate with ‘was’. I know I should limit it to 4/page and I know it makes a lively scene passive but that’s exactly what I want sometimes. Nothing bleeds the passion from a story like ‘was’.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I actually prefer the first one you wrote – it’s about people and their experiencing of a place and an event. That last one reads rather like a travel brochure. There is, to my mind, only one rule a writer should obey – follow no rules. Take no notice of self-appointed pundits. Just write and write and write – let your own uniquely personal voice develop and ultimately show through, however long that takes. Then you’re a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for this comment, Jeff. I’ve always been suspicious of writing “rules” apart from the fundamentals of grammar, but there are so many pundits holding forth, that sometimes I wonder if I’m just being a curmudgeon, and find myself vacillating. But you’re right — writing is an art, and should be regarded as such. And in the published book that paragraph hasn’t been whittled down to bare bones. It’s told in first person, and the narrator does have a distinctive voice. Thanks again!

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      1. I’m very glad Audrey, that the real version made it to your published book! But I’m sure that sort of thing happens to a lot of people – i.e. they’re persuaded to abandon their own instincts (assuming, and I mean this kindly, they have serious writing instincts) on the advice of someone who is little more than a critic. If such people know so much about writing – which, in its serious mode, is such a uniquely personal art – why aren’t they doing it? Please put aside any thoughts that you may be a ‘curmudgeon’! Do your own thing. Hear your own inner voice, then do as it says. It knows.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Well at least this visual artist does editing! Lol!! And I’ve read about other fine artists who did too (which is where I got the notion). Fine art creation, in my opinion, mirrors the writing process. So I look to “how-to-write-well” books and blogs etc. to help maintain my own editorial-thinking-within-art awareness. Yes, within fine art there’s plenty of rules/guidelines/opinions about the process but I’ve found it helpful to step outside of my genre (so to speak) for a fresher look at the creative process. I find that the line between helpful technical info and personality-cultdom within the fine art world is too easily blurred. Thus my looking outside my discipline. In addition to looking to writing methodology I also find looking towards scientific methods of thought helpful.

        Liked by 2 people

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