Sunday, September 4, 2011

To Was or not to Was.

I think I hate the word was. I'm not sure, but I think I do.

The English language would surely be incomplete without it, and all communication would come to a stop, but would it really be so bad to hide it in the closet once in a while? Most writers would be sorry-out-a-luck, and would die a slow, painful death, but hey, wouldn't the sacrifice be worth it? =P

Here's the thing. The more I learn, the more I notice the difference between fabulous writing and terrible writing. You want to know the difference between the two? For this post, it's the word was.

Almost always, a sentence would be better without it. Is it laziness on our part that we leave that boring word in there? Granted, it's needed at times, but for the most part, it's not. The point is still the same. It's worth the time to go through your manuscript and see if that word can be replaced by something better.

1. Beth was smart.    or     The answers saturated Beth's mind, and her fingers flew across the test paper as she wrote the correct numbers.
2. It was so hot.    or     I fanned myself as I watched a mirage ripple over the heated pavement.
3. He was the cutest boy at school.     or      I stared, unable to deny  the heated attraction I felt when his gaze flickered over me.

These examples were off the top of my head. I'm sure they could be improved, but you get the idea. Fix all the was words (for past tense) and is words for present and you'll be surprised at how great your book becomes!

And watch out for that first sentence summary. Don't say, "Beth was smart" and then go on to explain why by putting both sentences (in my example) together. It takes the power out of your paragraph, the umph out of your story, and the mystery out of your words. You DON'T want that, no matter what. Are there exceptions to that rule? Only if you're Stephen King maybe.


erica and christy said...

When christy and I critique each other's work, she takes out all my "was" and I take out all her "had". The truth is, they both work, but you definitely want to go with the strongest verb you can.

(I also had someone look at mine who hated "as (verb)". Sometimes you can't win!)

Maurice Mitchell said...

I never thought about that before. I'm going to try taking it out and see what happens.

Belle said...

Great advice!

Old Kitty said...

I need coffee to come up with examples cos my brain is fried at the moment - oh but I love your advice and samples! Thank you! Take care

Rob-bear said...

I had never thought about that. A significant difference between journalism and creative writing, I think. With journalism, one is on a fairly tight "word budget," especially in radio.

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

I do a bit of journalism myself, writing articles for a local newspaper, but it's an opinion column rather than just plain reporting which does have to be quick and to the point. I'm talking about novels here, but you're right, Rob. The news can't be quite as creative or we might not believe it! LOL

Ashley Nixon said...

I do this with the word 'that'. When I edited, I took most of the that's out. After I realized this, I listened to how people spoke, and they just automatically use an unnecessary 'that'...thought that was interesting.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Hear, hear! Couldn't agree more.

Better is Possible said...

Excellent advice that I shall pass along to the Grade 7/8 english teachers when school resumes this week.

anthony stemke said...

I was just thinking how cool those substitutions you made were.

Melissa Ann Goodwin said...

The main problem with"was" is that it usually results in telling not showing. As in "he was hot," vs. "sweat streamed down his face and soaked the collar of his crisp cotton shirt." But sometimes it's okay to "tell," it's just a matter of getting the right balance and not overusing.

JaseR75 said...

I love this advice! I will be looking for it from now on!

Julie Daines said...

While I agree with most of what you said, I believe there is a place for "was" in writing, and sometimes writers try so hard to avoid it, they end up writing sentences that don't really sound right.

Writers need to really ask themselves what they are trying to say. If "was" is the best and most effective way to say it, then use it.

"The cake was chocolatey and delicious" may not be the most creative way to say it, but, "Rich, chocolate flavors saturated her mouth" sounds a little awkward and forced. No one really thinks that way.

The important thing: Keep the writing organic, not forced.

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

I did mention, didn't I, that there are definitely times to use the word "was."

Another way to describe that cake might be to say, "The first bite coated my mouth with gooey sweetness, melting like a Hershey bar all over my tongue."

I can honestly say, I think like that! LOL It made my mouth water just writing it! Now THAT'A good cake! =)

Peggy Eddleman said...

I hate WAS, too. In some instances, though, it's so hard to get rid of! I loved your examples.

jbchicoine said...

It's true, there are often far more interesting ways to state what something is or was! Just takes some imagination! I always isolate the word and try another approach if possible. Sometimes, was is all there is to it!

Amy Jarecki said...

Hi Melissa - Thanks for following my blog! I agree, was is evil. I always go through and look for all the "was" words in my MS and reword. I've never been able to get rid of 100% however! By the way, my favorite all time autor is WILBUR SMITH! I've been reading him since 1982!!!!


Jemi Fraser said...

I'm getting better at catching my 'was' words in the first draft - but I still try to go through again and fix the ones I can :)

D. Heath said...

This is a bit OT but I always get was and were mixed up. So embarrassing!!

Shari said...

I "was" way too much. Not to be confused with--I was way too much, because I'm definitely not, too much, that is.

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

Shari-I can already tell you're my kind of gal! lol

Michelle Teacress said...

Oh yes, was is the keyword that practically shouts 'show, don't tell'.

Have a great week, Melissa. :)

Elizabeth Mueller said...

What a great post! Yes, "was" is as killing as any adverb is. Great examples. Now to highlight every "was" in my WIP and turn them into descriptions. :)


Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?

YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

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