I know “was” is technically only three letters, but I still hate that stupid word. It sneaks its way into my first drafts, littering my sentences with its presence, and overall fills my life with utter and complete misery. It forces me to reevaluate my very existence as a writer--I suck. I really, really suck—and taunts me, daring me to replace it with something better.
Okay, so I’m being overdramatic, but I still hate that word. I do. Most of the time I don’t even see it there, my eyes gloss over it. It isn’t until I submit my work to my critique members for review that the “was’s” become noticeable—they kindly highlight them in bright yellow for me (sweet, huh?).
And I swear, honest I do, those “was’s” magically appeared in my manuscript, scrambling my sentences and popping up like weeds. Because I know I couldn’t possibly have written that many. No way. Not me. I know to use them sparingly. I know I should write with more description, more pomp and zeal.
But guess what? I did.
I wrote them. Every one of them.
I am . . . *gasp* . . . a “was” whore.
Yep, I said it. I hang my head in shame and humiliation. I use the word “was” far more than I should. A bad habit in need of breaking. But how? How does someone like me fix it? How do I write with stronger and more engaging verbs?
Then, as if in answer to lift me from my self-loathing, I received an email: 6 Things You Should Know about “Was,” by the Grammar Divas . Now, most often times (I’m being honest here) these are the kind of emails or blog posts I delete because in my mind, grammar equals boring. Bluck. Phooey. I don’t need no stinkin’ grammar.
But if this truly was an answer (there I go using “was” again), then I needed to heed it as a sign, and read it. So I did.
And my eyes widened with pure understanding—just because I used the word “was” didn’t mean I sucked a lot, only a little, and somehow knowing that made me feel better.
The Grammar Divas said that “was” is okay to use in a rough draft. It’s the “go-to verb.” When trying to get all your ideas down on paper, sometimes it’s enough to know the hero was sad. Instead of wasting valuable time searching for the perfect verb, just throw it down, move on, and plan to fix it later in the editing stages. (Yeah, yeah. That was my plan all along).
They also said that using the word “was” doesn’t necessarily make the sentence passive, just boring.
These are only two of the six areas they discussed about the word “was.” To read the others, check out their site. But, these two resonated with me the most. First, because it’s okay to use the word “was” in the first draft. I’m not a horrible writer, just boring. And boring I can fix.
There are several things I can do to eliminate “was” and other to-be verbs from my manuscript. For instance, I can start with substituting words. Instead of saying, He was going to the saloon (I’m writing a western) I can write, He meandered his way to the saloon. See? Less boring. Not perfect, but better. Another thing I can try is rearranging the sentence. Sometimes just flip-flopping the order around can erase out those nasty to-be verbs. The man was standing at the bottom of the stairs. I could say, At the bottom of the stairs, the man stood watching. (Okay, I probably wouldn’t write that sentence, but you get the idea). Another way to remove to-be verbs is to try to change another word in the sentence into a verb. Instead of saying, He was watching her from the bottom of the stairs. I could simply say, He watched her from the bottom of the stairs. Anytime you have a to-be verb placed in front of an “ing” word, just change the “ing” word to “ed” and WAH-LA—the to-be verb is eliminated. Simple.
I understand the need to kill all to-be verbs. I get it. I mean, to-be verbs show no action. They're just there. And yes, they are boring. Can I get rid of all of them? Probably not, but when I go back through my manuscript during the editing stages, I find it’s not all that hard to give my sentences more punch, more action, by removing the to-be verb and inserting something far more exciting. It’s impossible to write without to-be verbs, so don’t chuck them all, but try to use them sparingly. That’s what I’ve learned. I can do that.
I don’t suck. I’m just boring and boring I can fix.