Monday, September 24, 2012

Never Use "Was"

By Julie Daines
The Ten Commandments of Writing and When to Break Them

Writing Conferences. We go. We listen. We obey. Maybe sometimes we obey too much.

My next few posts will be about when to break the writing commandments.

Comandment #5

Thou Shalt Not Use the Word Was

As with all of the posts in this series, I agree with this commandment on most levels. However, as with other commandments, the problem comes when writers take this rule too far. 

Usually, the best way to say something is the simplest and most direct. Writers who beat around the bush with fancy words are guilty of what is known as purple prose, which I define as trying too hard to make each sentence a work of art unto itself. Each sentence's purpose should be in contributing to the beauty of the whole.

From the first bite, the rich, chocolate cake saturated his tastebuds with mouth-watering flavor. 
First of all, this doesn't sound at all like what a MG or YA character would say. And secondly, it sounds forced. So unless your character is Anne of Green Gables, simple and direct is best. 
The chocolate cake was delicious. 
Straight and to point. We get it, and now the story can move on. 

The object of avoiding the use of the word was is not to write forced prose, it is to use a stronger, better, more descriptive verb. So try to replace was with something better.
The chocolate cake tasted delicious. 
Or rewrite the sentence in a way that says the same thing, only better.
Mack loved that chocolate cake from the first bite.
If the tasting of the chocolate cake is the pinnacle plot point to your story, then go ahead and elaborate. If it's a passing part of dinner, keep it short and simple. 

Example 2:
The sun beat down on the road. When I opened my car door, the heat assaulted me, wrapping its burning fingers around me and choking me. The hot asphalt attacked my bare feet trying to burn its way through my skin. 
At first glance, this may seem ok. But it's a problem I see a lot in descriptions. Whether it's meant like this or not, the entire paragraph is personification--a type of literary device.

As with all literary devices, it should be used judiciously. Save it for the important parts of you story. 

If Cami just ran out of gas in the middle of the desert and she faces imminent death by heat stroke, then this example is ok.  

If all you want to do is get across how hot it is when Cami pulled up to the swimming pool, then keep it simple and direct--even if it means using was
By the time Cami pulled up to the swimming pool, it was beyond hot.  

Bottom Line:
  • Use was, but only when it's the best and simplest way to get your point across. Sometimes, there is no better substitute. 
  • If you can, use a stronger verb in its place or rewrite the sentence. 
  • When you need to describe something important, pull out all the stops and elaborate--always keeping in mind the YA or MG voice.

As you're reading, watch for when the author uses was appropriately, and when they should have used it, but instead made one of these mistakes. 

What are your thought on using the word was?

1 comment:

Yamile said...

I totally agree with you! Sometimes when drafting, I can't turn the inner editor off and all the writing advise (conflicting writing advise I should add) I've ever heard paralyze my attempt to get the story out of my system.

Sometimes there's no better word than "was." But I am guilty of overwriting, so I'll watch out for this in the future (when I'm editing, of course :-)