was (the word)

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

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