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Old 12-25-2012, 10:22 PM   #1
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use of the word 'was'

On another board, I have been involved in an ongoing discussion about about a copy-editor I used. Many side issues were generated, some by people who claim to have read my book even though it has been unpublished for several months while going though reviews by two copy editors and a fellow author. One person stated the following:

"Another flaw in the book is the constant use of "was" which should never be used unless absolutely necessary, because it makes the action less immediate and is in the tell rather than show category. In other words it screams amateur."

I'd like to know if this comment is at all valid. Also, are there other words that should be avoided or at least used minimally.

I discovered that, in the book being reviewed the word 'was' appears 952 times in a 95,000 word total - a bit more than 1%. By contrast 'the' is used 8,832 times (9% of total); 'it' is used 2,952 times (3% of total); 'and' is used 2,880 times (3% of total)

Obviously, I can go through the story and attempt to eliminate the egregious 'was' as much as possible, but is this really necessary?

Are there other words that scream amateur?
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Old 12-25-2012, 10:34 PM   #2
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I am still on the newbie end of things, but I am in a war with the word was. It is just so passive and boring. If I find myself writing it I will not move forward until I can find another way to say it without the word. It generally helps my story by avoiding it. I only leave it when absolutely necessary. Which happens a decent chunk anyway.

As for other words, those are the only words I am at war with, but when I go for my next editing pass on my latest story I will probably find more.
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Old 12-25-2012, 10:36 PM   #3
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Well... it depends upon how was is being used. The main "offenses" of the word "was" are:

Unnecessary past progressive. Past progressive is used to show a continuous action (particularly where it is intersected or halted by another action).

Example of past progressive: She was dancing when he tapped her shoulder.

Past progressive is overused, and in many cases can be eliminated. The example I gave is an appropriate usage, but it is often used when just using the past tense would do.

The other offender: Passive voice.

Example of passive voice: He was watched by the woman on the roof as he left the building.

in active voice: The woman on roof watched him leave the building.

It's best to strip down your language to active voice as much as possible, and to remove unnecessary instances of the past progressive.

Hope that helps.
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Old 12-25-2012, 10:39 PM   #4
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Old 12-25-2012, 10:54 PM   #5
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There is nothing inherently wrong with using 'was'. Past progressive has its place, as does passive or other constructions that use it. Denying its use is like saying 'the' is wrong, or you can't use the word blue.

Can you overuse it, or use it ill-advisedly? Yes. Is it wrong to ever use it? No.

An editor I internet-know once told of a MS she received that had been ruthlessly edited to remove every instance of was or the verb to be. It was 'utterly unreadable'

Like every word, use it wisely.
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Old 12-25-2012, 11:00 PM   #6
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I'm not too much at war with it at present. Only because I noticed many of our favorite authors, old and new, use 'was' all over the place, sometimes two sentences in a row. But I don't have much experience with editors, so I don't know what to think.
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Old 12-25-2012, 11:15 PM   #7
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English depends on the word was. Please ignore anyone who tells you to avoid using it. They're likely newts.

Here's the issue: Was, the third singular past tense form of the verb To Be (was is also the first singular past tense form, as in I was) is, like all of its relatives in the To Be verb family a "helping" verb.

Forms of To Be help create tenses (and voices) in English (the verb To Have helps create tenses too).

Was, or were, (or another form of To Be in the past tense) are required to form the passive voice in English. That's when you can't tell from the sentence who did / performed the action of the main verb.

The ball was hit.


Hit is the main verb. Was is the helping verb.

We know someone (or something) hit the ball, but the was hit without a pronoun (he, she or it) or noun means that we don't know who or what did the hitting.

The ball was hit is in passive voice.

Sometimes we want to use passive voice, even in fiction, because sometimes we don't know who in fact performed the action of the verb (you'll see passive voice a lot in certain kinds of academic writing, for instance) or we do but we don't want to indicate who is responsible for something (think about politicians "Mistakes were made.").

So some newts people think:
  • Using was always = passive voice.
  • Passive voice is always a bad evil no good thing

Neither of these are true.

There are many kinds of sentences and clauses that must use was because we need be verbs to form tenses. Sometimes we want to use passive voice.

Just be sure you're in control of your words.

As with all writing, the thing to do is ask yourself:
  • Does this say what I mean?
  • Is this the best way to say what I mean
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Old 12-25-2012, 11:20 PM   #8
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If you say, "The sky was blue", then you're telling.

If you say, "The sky glowed blue", you haven't necessarily improved much, but you've taken a step closer to showing.

The difference between showing and telling is that the reader is more likely to picture the scene when you "show", whereas when you "tell", you've informed them of facts and there's no reason for their imagination to engage with the story. Everything is laid out.

I think that one commenter was propping their own ego up by cutting you down, but using "was" too much is a valid sign that a story tells when it should show more.
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Old 12-25-2012, 11:23 PM   #9
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The sky was clear. <-- nothing bad; probably no better alternative.
The dog was wiggling its tail <-- depends on context, may be perfect, maybe simple past works better.
It was a thunderous night <-- may warrant rewrite but "was" isn't the issue.
He was being chased down the street. <-- passive. But there are times passive should be used esp when subject is unknown.
He was being chased down the street by some filthy, nasty, dark, dangerous, blood-sucking... you know what. <-- now this is bad ^_^
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Old 12-25-2012, 11:47 PM   #10
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Read your favorite writers. Odds are, they use "was" correctly.

"Was" is not passive. Poor use of "was" makes a sentence passive, not the word itself.

It isn't about avoiding words, it's about using words properly, and picking the best word for the job. Do try to write active sentences, and do try to show, not tell, but don't listen to those who say "was" is always passive. Reading books you love can answers such questions better than anyone else.
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Old 12-26-2012, 12:52 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by iwannabepublished View Post

"Another flaw in the book is the constant use of "was" which should never be used unless absolutely necessary, because it makes the action less immediate and is in the tell rather than show category. In other words it screams amateur."

I'd like to know if this comment is at all valid. Also, are there other words that should be avoided or at least used minimally.

I discovered that, in the book being reviewed the word 'was' appears 952 times in a 95,000 word total - a bit more than 1%. By contrast 'the' is used 8,832 times (9% of total); 'it' is used 2,952 times (3% of total); 'and' is used 2,880 times (3% of total)
Go pull out four good novels from your bookshelf (or the library) and see how often they use was. Then, disregard that advice that using was is the mark of an amateur.

Just like anything else, it's about sentence construction and your use of "to be" verbs like was, and how everything fits into your story.

Read as many novels in your genre that you can to see how the pros write.
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Old 12-26-2012, 01:18 AM   #12
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Quote:
Go pull out four good novels from your bookshelf (or the library) and see how often they use was.
Exactly. Whoever was giving this advice hasn't read many books.

Because it's Christmas, have some presents: first lines of books.

It was a pleasure to burn

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

It was the day my grandmother exploded

The building was on fire and it wasn't my fault

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish

On the far western shore of a northern continent there was once a city called Seattle

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own...
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Old 12-26-2012, 01:43 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
"Was" is not passive. Poor use of "was" makes a sentence passive, not the word itself.
This, exactly. If you have to strain to come up with a substitute for "was" in a sentence, you probably don't need it, and you'll be producing strained, artificial writing that will offend more readers than the simple, transparent use of a standard "to be" verb form will.

"Was" is the simple past tense of "to be", so much the same observation can be made of the present tense form "is", and their equivalent agreement forms ("were, are, am"). I teach English composition, and am in a constant low-level war to defeat the insidious concept that the use of "to be" verb forms is to be avoided.

Plus, you've already answered your own question:

Quote:
Originally Posted by iwannabepublished View Post
I'd like to know if this comment is at all valid. Also, are there other words that should be avoided or at least used minimally.



Epistemological.

And, as others have already noted, this is yet one more of the kinds of questions that can be addressed by actually reading some real books.

caw
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Old 12-26-2012, 01:56 AM   #14
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And now I know I no longer have to continue my persecution of the word was. At least mostly, I default to a passive voice. That is where was comes into play with me.
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Old 12-26-2012, 01:59 AM   #15
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And now I know I no longer have to continue my persecution of the word was. At least mostly, I default to a passive voice. That is where was comes into play with me.
That's great you recognize this. We all have faults in our writing.

It's not about the actual words we use (because they are just words), but more about how we construct our sentences using those words.
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Old 12-26-2012, 02:03 AM   #16
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Ah, the 'was' witchhunt rears its ugly head again. Next: have.
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Old 12-26-2012, 02:24 AM   #17
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Old 12-26-2012, 02:27 AM   #18
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And now I know I no longer have to continue my persecution of the word was. At least mostly, I default to a passive voice. That is where was comes into play with me.
And the quickest symptom of passive constructions isn't any "to be" verb form. It's the word "by". The common passive construction takes the form of "Y was done by X", rather than the active construction "X did Y". Search for the word "by" and you'll almost certain come across passive constructions. Look at those and see if you can sensibly render them into more active form.

This won't get all instances of passive sentence construction, but it will get a lot of them, and help you be more cognizant of passives. And, also remember, sometimes a passive construction is more appropriate than an active one. Context matters.

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Old 12-26-2012, 04:19 AM   #19
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Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
And the quickest symptom of passive constructions isn't any "to be" verb form. It's the word "by".
This never occured to me, but it makes sense. Just did a search on 'by' in my WIP - 292 instances in 66k. Seems like quite a lot to me, so now need to check they're all necessary...

Quote:
Originally Posted by blacbird View Post
And, also remember, sometimes a passive construction is more appropriate than an active one. Context matters.
Yes, indeed. Taking a look at a few instances of passive voice in my WIP, I think I only use them when active wouldn't be appropriate, such as in this sentence:

'I have come to request that you overturn the sentence passed by the high priest'

- it's almost idiomatic to say 'sentence was passed by', and changing it to 'the sentence that the high priest passed' would sound unnecessarily clunky, and a transparent attempt to avoid passive voice for no good reason, IMO.

Good technique to use to check you're not using it willy nilly though.
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Old 12-26-2012, 04:37 AM   #20
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Originally Posted by VanessaNorth View Post
Well... it depends upon how was is being used. The main "offenses" of the word "was" are:

Unnecessary past progressive. Past progressive is used to show a continuous action (particularly where it is intersected or halted by another action).

Example of past progressive: She was dancing when he tapped her shoulder.

Past progressive is overused, and in many cases can be eliminated. The example I gave is an appropriate usage, but it is often used when just using the past tense would do.

The other offender: Passive voice.

Example of passive voice: He was watched by the woman on the roof as he left the building.

in active voice: The woman on roof watched him leave the building.

It's best to strip down your language to active voice as much as possible, and to remove unnecessary instances of the past progressive.

Hope that helps.
This pretty much says what I would have said on the issue. There are times and places for both past progressive and for passive voice, but when they're overused, they tend to make the narrative feel "flatter" or more distant.

Quote:
Originally Posted by VanessaNorth View Post

'I have come to request that you overturn the sentence passed by the high priest'
This is another example where passive voice makes the most sense. Since the sentence is what's important, and the fact that the priest passed it is really just clarification or an afterthought, it works best. Of course, anything inside quotes is fair game if it's how the character in question would talk in the situation--and this certainly is.

There definitely are certain idiomatic uses of past progressive that feel better than simple past tense as well. And example would be, "It was raining." Yes, you could say, "It rained." But it sounds strange to do this in most contexts.

Sometimes it can be tricky to sneak active voice in. It's easy to write "The building was tall." But saying something like, "The temple towered aboveits neighbors," or "The tower soared upwards, disappearing into the clouds," conjures up a clearer image and feels more present.

Of course, writing everything descriptively can add a lot of verbage to a MS and slows the narrative. There are times when the pov character is hurrying somewhere and not focusing on her surroundings much. Then, it really is better to simply say "it was dark out," rather than "Darkness shrouded the streets like a velvet curtain."
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Last edited by Roxxsmom; 12-26-2012 at 04:59 AM.
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Old 12-26-2012, 04:46 AM   #21
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I really appreciate all of your comments and suggestions.

I must say that I think the comment I received, that caused me to begin this thread, made me second guess my work. On the other hand, I've been working on the story for many years. In that time I have had three different people look at it for a fee - doing general editing as well as specifics copy-editing. I've also exchanged my story with another writer for beta reading. Currently, another writer has graciously decided to go through my story in the search for errors. So, a lot of eyes have already reviewed my work.

I've received comments like this from one editor -

""I think you've created a very compelling series with interesting characters. It's obvious that you've researched the subject matter well. Actually visiting the area must have helped a great deal. You manage to make the transition from book to book smoothly, while each book is different enough to stand alone."

and another said this -

"Great story! It needs some work to make it really strong, but the story is fantastic—and it leaves it so open too, which is good. I really enjoyed it and can't wait to read the next book!"

So in the end, I will, of course, look for 'was' and 'by' and see if any instances need fixing. Even though no one else picked up on these words as being poor choices.

Once again, thanks for all of the input.
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Old 12-26-2012, 09:14 AM   #22
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The word was is not inherently evil. You should always strive to write the clearest, most effective sentences possible. If the word was is the best word for a given sentence, then it's the best word.
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Old 12-26-2012, 04:52 PM   #23
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Nobody else picked them up as poor word choices because they are not poor choices per se!

It's how you use them that matters.

Poor and bad and sloppy come into play when we toss out sentences without stopping to think what we're saying and without checking we actually said what we meant and meant what we said.

Aim for clarity and flow.

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Originally Posted by iwannabepublished View Post
So in the end, I will, of course, look for 'was' and 'by' and see if any instances need fixing. Even though no one else picked up on these words as being poor choices.

Once again, thanks for all of the input.
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Last edited by Bufty; 12-26-2012 at 04:57 PM.
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Old 12-26-2012, 05:03 PM   #24
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Edit/find/was is useful for quickly skipping through your text to see if you're misusing 'was' by overusing a particular construction or using incorrect tense. Nothing wrong with the word itself, as others say, but it's worth a quick check.
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Old 12-26-2012, 11:39 PM   #25
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I can't help but think of one of the most well-known paragraphs ever written.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair ...
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