6 Things You Need To Know About “Was”

Some writers love it. Most are passive about it.

Some editors can take it or leave it. Others abhor it.

Was can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It all depends on how you use it in your writing.

“Was” Is Your Rough-Draft Go-To Verb.

Was is the perfect verb to use when throwing down the rough draft of your novel.

Madeline was sad.
The stranger was in the dark hall.
Emily was coming around the corner.
It was imperative they find the killer.

Instead of stopping to look for the right word to describe how sad Madeline was or what the stranger was doing in the dark hall, tuck was under your belt and write, write, write. Using was allows your mind to wander, to see and feel your characters as the story unfolds in your head and on your computer.

No stopping to wordsmith Emily’s journey around the corner or spell out the specifics about the elusive killer. Simply keep the keyboard clicking until your type The End. Then (and only then) feel free to search and find was and do with it as you wish.

“Was” Isn’t Necessarily Passive Voice, But Can Be Boring.

Ever get back a contest entry, critique package, or editor review with every was circled and marked, “Passive”? If was isn’t used as a transitive verb, i.e., it’s taking an object, then it’s not in passive voice.

John was a teacher.
The teacher was John.

Both sentences are active voice. Here, was acts as a linking verb, connecting a word or words in the predicate with the subject in the sentence.

So you may not have committed a passive-voice crime, but you were in violation of boring, mushy writing.

The stranger was in the dark hall.

Not bad for your first draft, but come on now, you’re in polish mode. Give us a stronger visual. Help us see what’s happening exactly.

The stranger waited in the dark hall, pacing.

Here’s another rough-draft goodie.

Renee was an unfulfilled woman. Every day was the same, but she trudged on.

Wow, was squared. Okay, no question about how Maddie sees herself, but couldn’t you do better?

Renee trudged on every day, unfulfilled.

Yes! Now Renee’s image is quick, clear, and definitive.

“Was” In Passive Voice Is A No-No…

Editors and readers don’t like was in the passive voice because they prefer an active, resourceful protagonist involved in the dynamics of a tension-filled story. Was in the passive voice is stagnant, waiting for someone or something to act. Stuff isn’t happening. No action. No strong pacing. No excitement. Blah.

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

Passive voice:

Must-Have #1: form “to be” + past participle (Think verb form ending in -ed that expresses completed action. Of course, there are a few exceptions like paid, thrown, bitten, and driven.)

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

Must-Have #2: A receiver of the action (a direct object) that is the subject of the sentence.

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

May Have: The doer of the action is in a prepositional phrase that begins with by. (Why may have? On rare occasions, a passive voice sentence doesn’t contain by, e.g., A body was found last night.)

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

So, how to fix? Make the doer of the action the subject of your sentence.

A stranger comforted Marissa after the car accident.

Now that’s an active sentence. Now we’re interested in what’s happening to Marissa.

… Unless “Was” In Passive Voice Is Better.

Sometimes was works in passive voice because the doer of action is unknown or unimportant. Sometimes the writer needs to emphasize the receiver of action.

The body was riddled with bullet holes.

Here, emphasis is on the body receiving… well… action. The doer is not known. Maybe your goal is to take away personhood in this grim, impersonal description. Your reader gets a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy. If you change this to active voice, you get:

Somebody shot the body full of bullets.

Active, but rather insensitive. This body was a living human being not so long ago. A word like somebody is an indefinite pronoun. The reader still doesn’t know who the killer is. Vague words don’t add strength to any idea, let alone one that shows a person shot to death. So here, passive voice works.

Jane was taken to the cleaners.

Idiomatic expressions give you some liberties as well. You don’t want to overdo them or they become cliché. But an occasional sentence like this one is okay, especially if it’s internal thought.

“Was” Tells Instead of Shows.

In your rough draft, was in a few hundred sentences is okay. However, leave them in there for your final draft and you’re in trouble. A writer that is unwilling or unable to be assertive in his/her writing leaves was in too many sentences and ends up telling the story instead of showing it

He was caressed… She was willing… Her blouse was slid off her shoulders…    He was pressed closer to her…

Exciting… NOT! You can take a love scene to the bedroom door or go all the way, but you must put some tension and passion in it to keep your reader.

His mouth brushed hers as she leaned into him. Her soft lips parted.
“Kiss me,” she whispered.
He liked that. His kiss deepened with a promise as he caressed her. And when he’d managed to get all the buttons on her blouse undone, she rolled her shoulders to help him slide the garment off. He liked that too. He hadn’t done this in awhile.

Now that will keep your reader turning pages.

“Was” Is Not A Strong Sentence Starter.

Pairing was with it or there at the beginning of a sentence robs the word string of oomph. Writing expletives such as it was or there was in your first draft is perfectly acceptable because it’s how your mind works to get the story out of your head.

However, at editing time, your job is to ensure your reader gets the picture in his/her head you want them to have and to keep reading. It was and there was are so vague they leave your readers doing the mental “huh?”

It was questionable whether Calvin can produce an alibi or not in the arson case.

What is itIt refers to nothing. Come on. You can do better.

Calvin may not have an alibi in the arson case.

Yep, better.

There was a noise behind her. Sandy knew she was not alone in the basement.

Expletives put emotional distance between the character and the reader. Who wants that?

A rustling noise behind her. Sandy’s breath caught. She wasn’t alone in the basement.

Oooo… scary… don’t you want to know more?

Was can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You’re the writer. You decide.

Write on!

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