How To Banish WAS and WERE from Your Writing

GUEST POST by Arkansas writer Barbara Youree

Probably the most useful verb in our English language is to be and its forms (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been), yet its overuse can be problematic.

Was and were are the main culprits for writers. The overuse of these two forms present a trap for writers who wish to use words to express their ideas, stories, and facts in an interesting and expressive style. Our goal should be to find more descriptive verbs for them.

Editing a novel I wrote several years ago before my writers’ group made me aware of the overuse of was and were, I discovered that my own work contained an overabundance of these verbs. As I made repairs in my manuscript, I kept notes to see if there was a pattern. (Oops! . . . to see if they fell into patterns.)

They did.

There was/there were/it was
Rewording these sentence openers will nearly always improve the sentence. Examples from my novel:

There was little he could do in preparation for his speech.
Edited: He could do little in preparation for his speech.

They played together whenever there was an opportunity.
Edited: They played together at every opportunity.

Past progressive tense
Replacing the past progressive tense with the simple past usually makes a sentence stronger.

Children were playing some sort of game with a ball.
Edited: Children played some sort of game with a ball.

He was also grieving.
Edited: He grieved also.

Save the progressive for scenes in which a more recent action intersects with an action already in progress.

When Mother entered the room, Jamie was watching TV.

But, even here, the was or were of the progressive can be avoided by rephrasing the sentence. 

When Mother entered the room, Jamie was watching TV.
Edited: When Mother entered the room, she saw Jamie sprawled on the couch, watching TV.

Abdin was busy hoeing between the rows, and he didn’t see them walk up.
Edited: Abdin, busily hoeing between the rows, didn’t see them walk up.

Linking verbs

The being verbs was and were often link the noun or pronoun in the subject with a noun or adjective complement.

Replacing the was or were with an action verb solves this problem—and makes for a smoother and shorter read:

He was the first to speak.
Edited: He spoke first.

Her tears were dry by the time I was able to come.
Edited: Her tears dried by the time I could come.

Passive voice
Although passive voice has its uses, it weighs down writing when overused.

Reminder: A verb is said to be in “passive voice” when the action points back to the subject. The verb in passive voice always includes a form of to be and a subject that does not perform the action.

Examples of verbs in passive voice:

The lost dog was taken to the pound.
The ball was hit.

Rewriting a sentence in “active voice” improves it by providing a subject that performs the action and gets rid of the helping verb.

Examples of verbs in active voice:

A kind stranger took the lost dog to the pound.
The player hit the ball.

Beginning writers soon learn the cardinal rule for creative writing: “Show, don’t tell.”

Most experienced writers still need reminding.

The to be verbs, useful as they are, can often weaken a sentence when more vivid words are called for. That takes more imagination than simply moving words around. Some examples—not from my novel—of showing rather than telling:

Telling: The defendant was angry at the judge.
Showing: The defendant gritted his teeth but knew he couldn’t challenge the judge.

Telling: Sally was sad.
Showing: Sally dropped her head into her hands, squeezed her eyes shut, and sighed.

Telling: Those were joyful times.
Showing: We played volleyball on the sand, drank wine, and danced until dawn.

Of course, instances of effective uses of was and were have their place. One example is in summing up a paragraph or chapter that calls for a short, succinct summary, such as these:

We were in love!
James was my hero!

When your creative genius is fired up, you don’t need to worry about was and were, spelling, or more vivid words. Write down your inspired thoughts, then go back and check if better words will bring your imagination to life. That’s where the real work begins, rewording, checking the thesaurus, and showing instead of telling.  After all, great writing transfers the visions, feelings, smells, and sounds from your creative mind to your readers.

Barbara Youree loves to write and has dabbled in most genres (children, YA, romance, narrative nonfiction, and poetry), but especially delights in writing historical fiction. Whether reading or writing, it's a great way to revel in past lore and events and at the same time enjoy a story, getting to know characters and customs of an earlier time. Recently she has finished her first endeavor in memoir, the most difficult, she believes. It's titled France My Way, Adventures from a Solo Traveler.

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