Sunday, December 11, 2011

Balancing 'was' in Your Writing

Editing seems a never-ending task.

Just when I correct one problem throughout my novel, something else catches my eye.
This time I ran across a quiet little guy well, actually over 1200 of his kind), hidden throughout the book.

I realized that when I write, I just go for it.  I don't stop to consider anything except getting that story
down before I forget it.

I know to watch for the word 'was/were,' I know it should be used rarely.  Yet I love to over-use it.  Truly, 'to be or not to be' has taken on a whole new meaning to me.

'Was' is a passive verb.  And passive verbs aren't always bad.

Let's take a look at Charles Dickens, who is well-known for this sentence:

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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short,
the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities
insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Why is this sentence considered one of the best ever written?  It contains 13 was/were and 2

It is the opening line of 'A Tale of Two Cities' and it does set the mood for the rest of the book,
but the reason it works is it is a balancing sentence.  Only a skilled author like Dickens could
come up with this amazing first sentence to a novel using 'was' so many times.

Yet the following line is known to be the worst first line in a novel:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals,
when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London
that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the
lamps that struggled against the darkness.  --Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The author only used 2 'was' and 1 'is' and had plenty of action verbs.

Why then?  'It was a dark and stormy night' isn't really a bad line.  What makes this sentence
terrible is the verbosity.  Talk about 'rattling along.'

So when is a good time to use was/were?  There are many times for the use of was/were.  For example, when speaking in the 1st person:  'I was hit by a car.'  The site:  has a great list of when it is appropriate.  Here is an excerpt:

Why Use the Passive?

1. When the agent of the action is unknown:

My wallet was stolen last night.

2. When the agent is unimportant:

The new students’ centre was completed last week.

3. When the agent of the action is obvious from the context:

I was born in March of '55. (Everyone knows that it was my mother bore me then)

4. To emphasize the recipient of the action:

a. Only Jane was injured in the accident; the remainder of the passengers were unhurt.
(we want Jane to be the subject of the sentence and at the beginning to emphasize her importance)

5. To connect ideas in different clauses more clearly:

a. Pharmacologists would like to study the natural ‘pharmacy’ known as the rainforest,
if this can be done before clear-cutting destroys it. (in this sentence, keeping THIS near the
first clause makes the sentence’s meaning clearer)

6. To make generic statements, announcements, and explanations:

c. It's said that it's going to rain tonight.(Often, people will say, 'They say that it's going
to rain tonight', the they being the weatherman.)

I encourage you to take a look at this website.

I don't think I've ever seen it explained so simply.

When not to use it is when it waters down the context of your story, or weakens the clarity of your writing.

As I edited, I found another reason for changing 'was' to an active verb.  It cut down the word count
dramatically and helped improve the flow of the story.

Here are 3 examples from my novel 'Always' where I changed 'was' to an active verb.

His reaction was swift.  He reacted swiftly (by the way, a writer must also be careful of the amount of
-ly's used).

My father used to say I was obsessed with....   My father used to say I obsessed over...

Taking Simon to visit April was a way to complicate his perfect routine.  (talk about verbose)  Taking Simon to visit April complicated his perfect routine.

Some of the more common bad habits I've run into throughout the book:  It was because...   was -ing...   It was (name) who (verb)...      he was able to (verb)
it was a (noun) (name) (verb)...    Huh?  What did I say.  Even I get confused when editing these sentences and talk about watering down a sentence!

As for passive versus active, there are many instances where an active verb just improved the tone of the book better.

How am I doing with this project?  So far, I have cut out or changed over 1,000 'was'.

Writing is a challenge - a challenge I love.  It is a puzzle waiting to be solved, a mystery of proper writing techniques blended with a creative use of the English language.  And I intend to use this art masterfully.

Words - so important - how we say what we mean, how we express ourselves.  The Bee-Gees sing to us the importance of words.

LHR and PAWS for Success


Elizabeth Maginnis said...

Donna, every writer should take this information to heart. Thank you so much!

Beth said...

I think it's a matter of opinion. I like all the words I overuse, because, that's how I write. Someone else might not appreciate them as much as I do...but, I might not appreciate their way of writing either. I tend to write 'was' and 'were', 'that' and all the other overused words on the list. But, if I didn't, then I wouldn't have a story...LOL Great post!

DM Yates said...

Elizabeth, thank you for your comment. I believe so too.

Beth, thank you for your comment. It is true. No matter what - we must stick to our style of writing, and yours certainly works for you.

fOIS In The City said...

That Dickens quote is one of my all time favs, Donna. First line trivia was a game I played with friends back in the day.

Boo-hiss on the entire issue of passive verbs. Where is it used with ease ... where is it nec? Inside quotations because we all "speak" with passage verbs. And of course, in first person for the same reason ... that is the narrator "speaking" to the reader directly. Boo-hiss on ending a sentence with a preposition as well. If you want a laugh, look up the funny article about Winston Churchill and his take on that subject.

The Desert Rocks said...

You're right Donna, about writing being a puzzle, especially since so many of my college professors emphasized something that WAS against the rules. They taught us to write the way we speak and now, much, much later I know that colloquial writing is grammatically imperfect. Oh well, I keep learning things everyday!

Donna Yates said...

Florence, I've heard the Winston Churchill thing and love it! And you're right - Boo-hiss on all the rules they put on us. Thanks for your comment.

The Desert Rocks, thank you for your comment. It's a total puzzle and balancing act, for sure! I guess we should just go with our intuition.

Joleene Naylor said...

I always chop several thousand words by eliminating "but" and "and". I've never paid much attention to "was" before. Hmmm...

Donna Yates said...

Yes. Was is one of those sly words we don't notice when writing.