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Writing, Illustrating & Publishing => The Craft of Writing => Topic started by: sarah-garcia-morgan on February 09, 2019, 05:23 PM

Title: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: sarah-garcia-morgan on February 09, 2019, 05:23 PM
Hi everyone,

I’ve just gotten back from a very helpful round of critiques, but am a bit surprised by one thing that was noted.  In a 600 word PB MS, I used the word “was” as the verb 2x, and one reviewer who has successfully published multiple books said that “was” should be avoided if at all possible.  The two instances in question are “There was only one problem,” and “Finally the day came when CHARACTER NAME was ready.”  While I understand that habitually using “was” would be a problem, I’m surprised that using it just a couple times is an issue.  So, do you think it’s an issue?  And if so, how do you avoid it? 

Thanks,
Sarah
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: andracill on February 09, 2019, 05:59 PM
I'd say it's personal preference, and unless it's an editor, I wouldn't worry about it (jmho). It's easy to avoid, but sometimes it makes sentences a little unwieldy -- it really depends on the context and the flow (rhythm).

For the first: He/She had only one problem

For the second: Finally the day came when CHARACTER felt ready.

:shrug If you don't think it improves the flow/rhythm, then I'd leave them as they were (and lookie here -- ending a sentence with a *to be* verb, another supposed no-no).
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: Debbie Vilardi on February 09, 2019, 06:53 PM
I agree with Robin.  If the solution is simple and doesn't mess too much with the flow, change those words. If not, keep them. This is minor tweaking stuff.

It could be there are other simple solutions to removing those words, but we'd need to see the manuscript to know. You can always post for critique in the SCBWI area of the boards with this question included to get more opinions. It's about using the strongest, tightest language possible. I hope this helps.
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: A. S. Templeton on February 15, 2019, 07:26 AM
One of my revision passes includes reduction wherever possible of “to be” across conjugations and tenses: be, is, are, was, were etc., a habit acquired from screenwriting, wherein page real estate is at a premium and lean action and dialogue are necessary to speed the read.

This keeps things sharp and avoids such mediocrities as:
It was a dark and stormy night...
There was/is/could be no reason...
It is unclear...
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: Melody on February 19, 2019, 12:02 PM
Yes, reduce "to be" as much as possible, but it is impossible to throw them all away. As stated by others, this type of stuff is done in a final revision. If I see, "She was sitting..." I try to change to "She sat..."

I wouldn't stress over it too much if you are just catching a few. Sometimes there is no other way to state something. Just do your best...

If you are also looking for examples of what and how to change, I will try to think of some others examples and maybe others will chime in with some examples of their own.
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: A. S. Templeton on February 20, 2019, 05:29 AM
I see, "She was sitting..." I try to change to "She sat..."
Actually the progressive past was sitting vs. the simple past sat is a poor example of interchangeabity. In casual speech and some writing, such helpers as the preposition down or the reflexive self are often omitted, creating ambiguity about existing vs. new action or status.

Of course you could cast an entire narrative into the present tense and give all characters no sense of the past or self, thereby killing off all instances of was or am. Quite a challenge!
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: Jan Fields on February 20, 2019, 07:32 AM
I'll sometimes see writing that is chock-a-block with was ___ing sentences that have nothing to do with continuing action. I think it happens because they're looking for a sense of immediacy and feel that might be a way to get it. But the past progressive has a very specific purpose. It's to point directly to continuing action. So if you have an action that you want specifically to point out as not a quick action but one that went on throughout a specific period of time, the past progressive works great. When it's rare, it brings special attention to the ongoing action. When it's just used for most of the verbs in some effort to make the action feel immediate, then it's just wordy.

The thing about verb forms -- any verb forms -- is that we need to use them purposefully, Throwing out specific words automatically without thought is like just throwing tools out of a tool box so that the box won't be so heavy. You may find the box easier to handle, but you'll also end up using a screwdriver for a paint scraper, just because you decided you don't want all your tools available.  We need to understand our grammar tools and use them for very clear and specific reasons. And then when we do that, we'll never be bothered when someone says something "should be avoided if at all possible;" we'll just smile and nod and check our verb use, not to automatically cut things out, but to be sure they are actually doing a necessary job and doing it well.
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: Anne Marie on February 20, 2019, 09:15 AM
Everything Jan said. BIG BIG DITTO.
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: 217mom on February 20, 2019, 11:23 AM
Dittoing Anne Marie's ditto to Jan  :check
Title: Re: How bad is “was” and how do you avoid it?
Post by: Vijaya on February 20, 2019, 11:25 AM
The thing about verb forms -- any verb forms -- is that we need to use them purposefully.

Brilliant reminder about any and all rules. Serve the story. Thank you Jan.