Monday, July 25, 2011

Fuzzy-Wuzzy Was A Bear: Killing 'Was' Brings Prose To Life

Every time our writer's group gets a new writer, I give a certain speech: Was is a dead-word.  Kill it.  It is the low-hanging-fruit of better writing, an alarm that jumps off the page and demands, "Make me more interesting!"

Was is clearly a verb, but doesn't move.  It offers no description or action.  It notifies us that a thing exists, but tells nothing about how it exists or what it is doing.  The nouns and adverbs that follow it will surely describe more, but that is no excuse.  Replacing a was is an easy opportunity to make prose more colorful and active - and possibly a chance to trim extra words. 

Was (and his sister were) is also a warning that something may be amiss.  Many was's indicate that the passive voice was used.  (See what I did there?)  It can also indicate that the writer was using an extra verb that can simply be cut.  (See what I did there again?)

So what do we do with those was's?  Some of them are extremely easy to cut if you know the tricks.  Some are troublesome -- you know it needs to go, but how?  And some are impossible to remove.  Moreover, not all was's are bad.  Fuzzy Wuzzy really was a bear, and I can't think of any better way to say it.  And there are other factors to consider -- like voice, rhythm, and pacing -- and it we don't want to sacrifice those, do we?  Sometimes not.

So let's start with the easy was fixes, and move up to the more complex.

Replace with a more active verb.

The soldier was on the hill.

Snore.  There he was.  On a hill.  Boring.  I want to know more about that soldier; I want to see him.  Here, the was indicates the author is telling, not showing.

The simplest fix: Find another verb.   

The soldier stood on the hill.

It's still kind of boring, but maybe the soldier is boring, and he'll be doing something exciting in a moment.  Maybe we don't want to distract the reader with what that soldier is doing, because all we need say is that he's there, and the real action is coming up from a different direction.  But maybe the soldier is doing something else while he's standing there, and it is I, the author, who is being boring.  Here are a few better examples:

The soldier waited on the hill.
The soldier paused on the hill.
The soldier hid on the hill.
The soldier gripped the side of the hill.
The soldier watched from the hill.
The soldier shivered on the hill.

All of these examples give more depth, more information about the emotional state or intentions of the character.

The last one is my favorite.  He's still just standing on the hill, but with just one word-change, he is now feeling something and we know
it's cold or scary up there.  Even if he's just a side character, a cardboard cutout, our story feels more real.

The first two examples required very little work.  But the others?  I had to make an extra effort to think and visualize, until I came up with some idea of what that guy was actually doing up there.  In many cases it is worth the extra effort, because if we can't see it, our readers surely can't.

Replace with the verb that is already there.

Frank was asking about the party.

Was is superfluous here.  It adds nothing.  Simply cross it out and change the tense of askFrank asked about the party.

Very rarely, the was adds a subtle connotation of additional information.  For example: I was hoping we could go out tonight.  This indicates that maybe it's too late, that some doubt has crept in about the verb, or that the status has changed.  Was is then sometimes a substitute for the dreaded had which we also want to reduce, i.e. as an alternative to, I had hoped...  In this case, keep the was, or go with the had.  They are equals.

Sometimes with this method, we need to change the verb for it to make sense.  And that's good, too.  See how this sentence transforms:

Pie filling was stuck all over her face.


Pie filling covered her face.

Passive voice.

Passive voice rarely belongs in fiction prose.  It takes a lot of practice to get good at finding passive voice in your prose.  Was is an easy warning sign.  (Bearing in mind that these are not mutually exclusive: you can write active voice with a was, and can write passive voice without it.)

Much has been written on passive voice, what it is, and why it is bad, so I won't go deeply into it here.  In summary, it is a sentence structure where something is acted upon, rather than an actor acting on that thing.  The reader never knows who the actor is, only that an action was done.

Here is an example with a was:

The old man was killed in cold blood.

So what?  The old man may be murdered, but so is any sense of shock over the crime.  We almost have an exciting sentence there, but it sounds a little stilted and stifled.  Let's change it to active voice, and watch that was disappear:

Someone had killed the old man in cold blood.

Even with a had in there, this act of murder is now a surprise -- as it should be.  We still don't know who the killer is -- that is still a mystery -- but now I feel more interested in finding out who dun it.

The sentence would be better rearranged.

Sometimes the was indicates an awkward or weak sentence.  A rearrangement of the ideas, the order in which they are presented, will remove the was and also make it a better-written sentence.

Simple example:

Billy wanted to say something nice, but all that came out was, "You're not very fat."

This is clumsy, and the was lets us know.  Not a lot of rearranging here:

Billy wanted to say something nice, but he could only manage, "You're not very fat."

Let's try another one:

Of all the things the witch loved, the wand was her favorite.

This sentence is okay.  It loads the concepts of action in the prepositional phrase, and all that's left is to note the wands existence (and then modify that with favorite).  There is a certain voice to that, but it's a little awkward. 

We could logically rearrange the sentence, putting the concept of the wand first:

The witch loved her wand most, out of all her favorite things.

That method works better the more complex the sentence is.  I've seen a lot of unweildy paragraphs smooth right out after rearranging the order of the concepts and dropping the was's.

Or we can keep the logical order, but break it up:

The witch favored a lot of things.  But mostly, she loved the wand.

New example:

Walking all the way to Mordor was out of the question.


No, they couldn't walk all the way to Mordor.

Show, don't tell.

That squirrelly was: it shows you that you may be telling.

I know I said this already.  But in my soldier example, I took the easy way out.  I simply replaced the verb.  But the was may indicate a drastic lack of detail you should fill in.  So allow me to elaborate.

She was old.

Holy crap, so much telling!  I heard we're not supposed to do that!  But if it is true that she really is old, how do we say it?  Describe the things that make her old:

She walked with bent back, her hair coarse and gray.  Her voice rasped like the last breath of a dying animal.  And she smelled like orange juice.

That's better.  And not a single was anywhere.  The change hurt my word count, but at least it's not boring.

That being said...

Don't kill every was.  Sometimes they are stubborn things that are not worth the trouble.  Sometimes simplicity is best.  Sometimes you are just describing a scene, and don't need your objects doing anything, just lying there being red or dirty or strong or soggy.  As with all writing rules, this one is meant to be broken.

But generally, this tip will clarify your prose, give your characters and settings depth, and add pep to your action scenes.


  1. Great post. You clearly don't need it, but my favorite book on the subject is "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams. ( When I started tech writing years ago, the book served as my primary textbook. - Christy

  2. I can always use more lessons in clarity and grace. :) Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. All good advice. I always pay close attention to your critiques.

  4. Thanks, Mark. I figured I'd said "Was is bad!" enough... and the time had come to get more specific about how to fix it. :)