Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Dime Store Sentences: Was" by T. Lynn Adams

Many years ago, a friend commented that he attended a writing seminar where professionals drilled into him the importance of getting rid of the word ‘was’ in your writing.

So--he did what every dedicated writer does. He went home, called up his completed 110,000 word manuscript, typed ‘was’ into a search box and, somehow, managed to delete every single one. Laughing, he related his exhausting effort to find and refill all those tiny holes. “I never knew I used ‘was’ so often!”

He also discovered you actually need the word in some places, especially in dialogue. It’s how we speak. So search and destroy was not the right way to attack the problem.

Another friend heard his plight and nodded with understanding and conviction. She had four novels published and told him her editor specifically asked her to go through her manuscripts, a sentence at a time, and get rid of that nasty little word as often as possible.

Though they laughed together, their comments stunned and perplexed me. It was the first time I had heard such strong bias against a written word…and only a three-letter word at that. Editors hated the word ‘was’? Geesh, I never knew editors could be so prejudiced!

So I started studying why ‘was’ was a naughty word.

Since then I have classified ‘was’ as a Dime Store sentence. It doesn’t take much to use it.

Sure, I could tell you that ‘was’ is the past-tense of the verb ‘to be,’ and you don’t want to use it because you want your actions and emotions to be current, not past-tense. ‘Was’ is passive, not active. For some, that explanation works.

For others, like me, visual examples are better.

He was tired.

Boring. First graders write these types of sentences. (I know--I have a first-grader.)

A fast fix is to replace ‘was’ with the word ‘felt.’

He felt tired.

Still, though, that’s not much better. My third-grader is learning to write like this. Both are basic, Dime Store sentences.

So, what do you do?

Simple. Flip your sentence over (move your ending to the front), pick a new descriptor, get rid of ‘was’ and ‘felt’ and produce something new.

Fatigue drained his body.

Are you starting to feel the difference?

Wanna get literary? It’s still easy--just add a simile.

Fatigue drained his body, seeping out of him like water dripping from a cloth.

­Or make it more even striking by adding a metaphor.

Fatigue drained his body and he sagged--a wet cloth wrung of its strength, the last bits of his energy dripping to the ground.

Which sentences make you--the reader--feel the most tired?

Remember, you want the reader to feel the events in your story, not just read about them. So go ahead and search out the word ‘was’ in your manuscripts and go to work.

Just don’t hit delete.


Cathy Witbeck said...

Wow, who knew 'was' to be one of the evil words to search for.
Thanks for the blog, Sarah.

Paul West said...

There are some places where the word "was" is legitimate, such as "John's favorite car was a Ford." Maybe not a great example, but do you think there is a place for the word at times?

Scott said...

Was, were, etc. are all words to watch out for, and at least think about whether you want to keep them or not.

I once had a manuscript rejected by an agent who cited my frequent use of "felt" as the reason for the no-go.

Laura Lofgreen said...

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