The Dreaded Word: Was

***Warning: if you really like to read books, don’t read this post. It will forever ruin you. If you want to improve your writing, then read on, but know that you will never be able to look at another published fiction book with the same eyes. You have been warned.***

I so wanted to make this my first post because this is one of my biggest pet peeves. I did refrain, however.

I’m sure I will come back to this again and again, especially once I really get into the heat of editing Dragons of Wellsdeep, but I wanted to give you a new tool to get you started on your own editing now.

My big pet peeve: the overuse of the word “was.”

Please note that I did say “overuse.” There are some people out there that insist that all instances of the word “was” in a manuscript should be eliminated. I can tell you that it is possible to write a whole book without “was.” I made this my challenge when I wrote The Three Books. There is not a single “was” within the narrative (there are a few in the dialogue because I didn’t want to change how the characters spoke) until the very last sentence. That finishing line contains the only narrative “was” in the whole book.

***Disclaimer: This is true for the 1st edition. I can’t swear it is for the second edition when I rewrote a couple scenes. I never checked, but I’m so use to writing around the “was” that I’m fairly certain there are none there.***

I am not a believer that the word should be totally eliminated. It is like any other word and needs to be used correctly.

“Was” is an indicator word. When you see “was” in your manuscript, it is a clue that your story is being told rather than shown. It generally indicates a state of being for something: It was a dark and stormy night; she was beautiful; the car was locked.

Here’s a hard and fast rule I want you to remember: Never use “was” in the first paragraph of your story.

I pick up books and flip to the beginning. If it has a prologue, I look at that the first two paragraphs for the word “was.” If I don’t see it there, I look at the first chapter for the same thing. If I find a “was” I decide if that was really the best course of action or if it could have been written better. If I find that I could have easily rewritten it, I put the book down on the shelf; the author doesn’t know his/her craft. If I deem it as totally necessary (and that is a rare instance), I begin to read. If I quickly start encountering more of the dreaded “was” word, I probably will put the book down unless it has a good hook.

Why do I tell you flat out to avoid was, especially when it is so prevalent in literature through the ages and in today’s genre writing? Because it’s generally unnecessary. A bit of clever rewriting will fix the situation. Yes, you are trying to show the hero at home, so shouldn’t that be your state of being for your character at that time? No! You’re trying to hook your reader into your story. Giving them a state of being with a “was” doesn’t show the character in action to make change. You need the flux of the action.

Let’s look at an example:

It was a dark and stormy night. The train was late and the rain about to set in. Frank glanced at his watch. It was only 8:00. He still had time. 

Okay, let’s fix this overabundance of “was.”

From the station platform, Frank looked at the clouds darkening the sky overhead and hoped it wouldn’t rain. He glanced at his watch. He still had time if the weather didn’t delay his train any longer. 

This still isn’t a perfect beginning, but it does clean up the instances of “was.” 

Here’s another:

Where was the book? Kim knew it had to be there somewhere. She’s put it at the bottom of her dresser drawer, right beneath her blue jeans, but it wasn’t there. She frantically jerked ever drawer out and overturned it, throwing them aside in her haste to search. Everything else was there: her diary, her jar of change, and a stray barrette. 

This is actually a modified sample from a real book. I’ve changed things up, but it’s still a good sampling. Let’s fix this.

Kim jerked the drawer from the dresser and dumped the contents onto the floor. She kicked at the clothes that fell out, hoping with each heartbeat that her foot would contact the solid weight of the book she had to find. Disappointed, she pulled out a second draw and overturned it. This time, she did feel something heavy drop. Tossing the emptied drawer onto the bed, she dropped to her knees and frantically searched. Her jar of loose change clattered as it rolled a ways across the carpet. She threw aside a stray barrette as she reached for the larger item hidden in the middle of her pile of blue jeans. Her fingers found the binding of a book’s spine. Momentary relief faded to dread panic as she realized she’d found her diary. 

Same information, but do you see how the action intensified? That’s because the story is more immediate by the action being shown rather than dulled as a state of being. 

Now, I want you to go out and start searching for “was” in your own work and others and I challenge you to make it better. It doesn’t take long to learn how to make it better. Now, when I really get into editing Dragons of Wellsdeep, I’ll have more tricks for you on how to fix “was”, but here you’ve had a sampling. If you accept the challenge and start being a “was” seeker, you’ll probably learn most of them on your own. Take your new tools with you and go write better.

Happy writing.