Writing Technique: The Word “Was”

Let’s talk about how to write.

My writing has really improved over the last few years.  Part of this improvement comes from writing more.  Another part comes from putting my ego aside long enough to listen to meaningful critique.  One of the things I’ve learned from critique is that I fall into the passive voice when I’m not paying attention.  Many writers do this, and the passive voice is fine once in a while.  But like any seasoning, too much ruins the broth.

Adverbs are in the same boat.  Adverbs are not your friend, and should be used with care and intention.  If you’re not paying attention when you use an adverb, you run the risk of telling something that you should be showing.

Most adverbs end in “ly” like quickly, loudly, and simply.  When scanning your writing, you can let your eye land on the words ending with “ly” and then start your surgery.  Similarly, many passive voiced sentences involve the word “was.” So, while editing The Repossessed Ghost, I spent a great deal of time rewriting sentences that involved that word.

Here is an example of a passively voiced sentence that involves “was”:

Rewriting sentences was how I planned on elevating my prose.

If I come across that sentence while editing one of my stories, I’ll rewrite it to something more like:

I planned on elevating my prose by rewriting the weak sentences.

Look how much stronger that sentence is!  The emphasis shifted from “was” to “planned.” It is easier to read, the message is clearer, and I even had room to sneak in an extra adjective.

My first draft of The Repossessed Ghost dripped with weak, passively voiced sentences.  It isn’t that surprising.  The main influence that set the tone for my book is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and he falls into the passive voice all the time.

Of course, not every passive-voiced sentence involves the word “was.”  Look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph.  The first half is passive.  It should be “Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files influenced and set the tone for my book.”  It’s sneaky, because it doesn’t involve the word “was” and it is part of a longer sentence.

So, as hard as I worked on The Repossessed Ghost, I know that it still isn’t perfect.  It’s stronger than the previous draft, with a greater emphasis on strong verbs.  However, sneaky sentences slipped past me, and now wait like active land mines.

But, beyond my own book, I have developed a sensitivity to the word “was.” I’ve spent so much time watching for it that it stands out in other people’s work.  It stands out in the audio books I listen to.  Every instance of the word “was” makes me sit up, pay attention, and listen for passivity.

I’m trying to back that off.  It isn’t a terrible word.  It’s sorely needed in some sentences.  I know that some of the sentences I rewrote in my book were not made better by eliminating “was.”  As I’m going through the beginning again, polishing and adding greater strength to the verbs, I’m trying to leave some of the sentences alone.

So, in summary, spending energy seeking and destroying the word “was” can help you reduce passively voiced sentences in your work.  But spending too much energy on something like that can make you crazy, and still allow you to miss your ultimate goal of good prose and a solid story.

You know, I never know how to end posts like these.  So I’ll just say, “Happy Birthday, Melissa!  I love you, and I hope your day has been extra special!”

(Edited.  When writing a post on writing, it’s embarrassing to include so many sloppy mistakes.)