Too Much “Was”; or, One Easy Way To Add More Life To Your Writing

(Post-A-Day Challenge, Day 24)

In my on-line critique group, this was my week to receive a critique.  As always, my group provided helpful feedback, catching all (or at least, many) of the things I missed.

One person pointed out to me that there was an awful lot of “was” in my current section.  Which is only fair, because I’ve pointed it out to her on at least one occasion as well.

What does she mean by “too much ‘was’,” you ask?  Well, here.  Let’s make up an example:
Suppose you have a setting that looks like the photograph on the right, and you wanted to describe it in your novel.  So you might write something like,

“The sky was bright blue in the afternoon sunlight.  There was a contrail slashed across it, vivid white across the blue.  The distant mountains were covered with trees and snow.  The nearby aspens were skeleton-white against the darker evergreens; their branches were bare for the winter.  Along the edge of the snow-packed road were the roughened lines of snowmobile tracks.”

Okay, maybe not the worst paragraph ever.  There are some good descriptions in there — a vivid-white contrail, skeleton-white trees, roughened lines of snowmobile tracks.

But it’s not the best paragraph it can be, either.

Why?  Because I’m telling you how everything was.  The verbs are all passive; they don’t engage you and draw you in.  “Was” is a wimpy verb, adding nothing to the scene.

Now, let’s try re-writing that paragraph to eliminate the “was”:

“A lone contrail slashed across the clear sky, vivid white against deep blue.  Tall pines dotted the snow-covered mountains, blurring into a ragged grey-green blanket as the peaks receded into the distance.  Nearby aspens, skeleton-white against the darker evergreens, reached winter-bare branches up to the sky.  Closer at hand, lines of snowmobile tracks roughened the edge of the snow-packed road.”

I’m sure that could be further improved, but you get the idea.  The second version of the description seems much more interesting and vivid, doesn’t it?  The more-active verbs draw you in better, making the paragraph sound more like poetry and less like a shopping list.  (Or at least, I hope they do!)

And that’s exactly what my friend was trying to tell me.  You can’t necessarily eliminate every occurrence of “was” (or “is”, or “were”, or “has been”) from your writing, but when you can, you should.

Who else has trouble with “was”, and what tricks have you learned to eliminate it from your writing?


About sheilamcclune

Aspiring author, sharing the tidbits I've learned along the way.
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