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Monday, April 24, 2017

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use 'Was'"

A common piece of writing advice is to avoid using "was" or any "to-be" word in your writing. But most professionals use them in their writing--so what gives? Over my years editing, I've seen stories that were crippled from the author's quest to avoid using "was," and I knew I needed to do a post on it. Here is the "was" rule, why it's a rule, and why you (probably) shouldn't follow it religiously--with some of the most common problems I see in avoiding it.

What's the Rule

Writers, particularly beginning writers, or any writer starting to work on their style specifically, will probably be told, "Don't use 'was!'" Sometimes this is told vehemently. And with good reason. Beginning writers usually way overuse was. Their work might read something like this:

Malinda saw that there was a beautiful sunrise outside her window. The color was an early-morning yellow-orange color, and there were smooth clouds. A sunbeam was going through a cloud to the east. Most of the sun was still hiding behind the hill. Half of it was concealed, like it was just waking. It was so peaceful outside. Birds were chirping. Malinda imagined that critters were wandering down to the river to get a drink. She was happy she noticed this beautiful morning.

Why it's a Rule

Using "was" so much makes fiction writing sound weak. It makes it monotonous. Sometimes writers put it in where it can be axed completely. But most importantly, it robs the passage of having strong verbs. Strong verbs are often specific, but I know one thing for sure about them--they are never "was."

Strong verbs = strong writing

Strong verbs bring specificity to the tale. They help draw the reader in.

As some writers will point out, "was" doesn't actually tell us anything. It's simply saying that something is existing. In a way, it's meaningless.

Look how this same passage changes by taking out every "to-be" verb:

Malinda saw a beautiful sunrise outside her window. The sky's color, an early-morning yellow-orange, complemented its smooth clouds. A sunbeam pierced through a cloud in the east. Half the sun still hid behind the hill, as if just waking. The entire outside emanated peace. Birds chirped. Malinda imagined critters wandering down to the river to get a drink. She smiled and soaked in the beautiful morning.

To be fair, this paragraph could use some more work to be taken to a higher level, but it's still a stronger piece of writing than the first one. Notice some of the particularly strong (specific) verbs used: "pierced," "emanated," "chirped," "soaked."

Now, side note for those wanting to get more advanced. The strong verbs you use help establish a tone. So "pierced" may not be the best option to use when capturing something beautiful. People don't usually associate things that have been pierced with "beautiful." However, this isn't the sort of thing that will make or break you and your readership, just something to consider when you want to drive home an image or tone.

Another reason "was" is a problem is because it's often used in telling, not showing:

Malinda was happy.

This is a "telling" sentence, because we can't "see" happy. It's a vague label. Often new writers pair "was" with telling or vague adjectives.

A third reason "was" is a problem is that often new writers use it because they are writing in passive voice. Passive voice happens when the object of the sentence becomes the subject.

Active voice: I gave blood --> I(subject) gave(verb) blood(object)


Passive voice: Blood was given by me.

Passive voice requires that there be a to-be verb in it. Passive voice also leads to weak writing.

A beautiful sunrise was seen by Malinda. To the east, a cloud was pierced by a sunbeam. Chirping was coming from birds. Critters wandering down to the river were imagined by Malinda. The beautiful morning was noticed by Malinda.

There are cases where passive voice is absolutely acceptable, but most of the time you don't want it.

Some people get confused and think any sentence that has a to-be verb is a passive sentence. That is not the case. Passive voice and active voice are strictly defined by sentence structure.

So it boils down to this:

To-be verb problems: weak writing, telling writing, passive writing

How (and How Not) to Follow the Rule

Sometimes authors try to avoid using "was," and they don't quite pull it off. There are correct and incorrect ways to master this rule.

How to (Correct)

  •  As I showed above, one of the ways to avoid "was" is to switch it out for a strong verb.
A sunbeam was going through a cloud. --> A sunbeam pierced a cloud.

 The color was an early-morning yellow-orange color, and there were smooth clouds. --> The sky's color, an early-morning yellow-orange (appositive), complemented the smooth clouds.

* Note - when you use an appositive, you need to make sure you still have a verb in the sentence, and one that makes sense. To test, try taking out the appositive to see if it still makes sense as a sentence:
The sky's color complemented the smooth clouds.

This checks out as a complete sentence and makes sense, so we are good.

  • Switch passive voice for active voice.
A cloud was pierced by a sunbeam. --> A sunbeam pierced a cloud.

  • In some cases, you switch out telling for a showing action (verb).
She was happy. --> She smiled.
People smile when they are happy, so "smiled" does the job.

How Not to (Incorrect)

  • Do not take out the to-be verb without making sure there is another verb (or replacement verb) for the subject of the sentence (or, more accurately, of the independent clause). 
The color was an early-morning yellow-orange color. --> The color an early-morning yellow-orange color. (incorrect) 
 The color was an early-morning yellow-orange color (independent clause), and there were smooth clouds (independent clause). --> The color an early-morning yellow-orange color, and there were smooth clouds. (incorrect)
*Note - intentional stylistic sentence fragments (or independent clause fragments?) are okay from time to time, but should not be frequently used simply because you are avoiding to-be verbs.

  • Do not simply repeatedly (and frequently) exchange "was" for another similar word, such as "had," "seemed," "appeared," or "existed."
 It was so peaceful outside. --> It appeared so peaceful outside. (not great)
She was happy. --> She seemed happy. (not great)
The color was an early-morning yellow-orange color. --> The sky had an early-morning yellow-orange color. (not great)
 It was so peaceful outside. --> Peace existed outside. (not great)

*Note - It's okay to do this on occasion and some cases call for it, but I've seen some stories where this is pretty much the only way the writer avoids the to-be verbs. That's not really any better than having to-be verbs because it doesn't really fix the problems to-be verbs bring. Also, all the had's, appeared's, and exist's can get very repetitious.

  • Do not avoid "was" by combining too many ideas into a single sentence (this usually appears as someone getting appositive- or modifier-happy . . . or as a really long sentence).
 Malinda saw a beautiful sunrise outside, the color an early-morning yellow-orange shade with smooth clouds and a sunbeam going through one in the east while its source still hid behind the hill, which made it look like it had just woken up. Peace existed in the image as birds chirped high in the trees, which had willowy branches, some with new leaf-buds beginning to grow like little peanuts that Malinda's little brother had strung up in his creative hour, where he often got brain fog like an elderly patient with dementia in a rest home stuck only with Crayola crayons, but Malinda smiled as she imagined critters, rabbits with white tails that stuck out like cotton from cottonwoods that grew wild yet uniform, similar to an orchard she had spent much of her childhood in, daydreaming about her future husband, and muskrats wandering down to the river to drink while Melinda took in the beautiful morning. 

* It's absolutely possible to pull off a long sentence with a lot of appositives and modifiers, but if you have too many with modifiers upon modifiers and a bunch of different concepts thrown together it can become a nightmare. I can usually tell when someone is doing it because they want to or because they are trying too hard to avoid "was."

When to Break the Rule

Use to-be verbs in dialogue

This may be clear to some people, but because the "never use 'was'" rule gets referred to so much and so vehemently, sometimes new writers get confused and try to take it out of their dialogue. This results in wonky and usually unrealistic dialogue.

"The sky's color, an early-morning yellow-orange, really complemented its smooth clouds. And a sunbeam pierced through a cloud in the east. It appeared beautiful," Melinda said.

"Did you see the sunrise this morning? It was beautiful. The sky had this early-morning yellow-orange color, and it was so pretty against the clouds," Melinda said.

Use to-be verbs in deeper points in viewpoint penetration

The deeper you get into your character's viewpoint, the more it resembles dialogue (but with one person--the character's self). Don't be afraid to use to-be verbs. In fact, you should. As I noted in my article on viewpoint penetration, humans think in "telling" sentences. The character's thoughts should mirror speech.

Often you will see first person stories use "was" regularly. This is because it is being told from that character's viewpoint.

Use to-be verbs to create emphasis and focus.

I've talked about this a few times on my blog, but certain areas in sentence structures carry more emphasis than others. Joseph M. Williams's book Style has a whole chapter dedicated to emphasizing words and phrases by altering sentence structure. The part of the sentence that carries the most potential emphasis is the last word.

Remember that naughty to-be phrase your English teacher told you not to use, "There are/is/were/was"? Because it doesn't actually tell us anything? Well, it's a great tool to push a word you want to a sentence's end for emphasis. Let's say that I want to emphasize the word "cows" and in the context of my scene, it'll add humor (because of the build up before). I could write, "Some cows grazed in the pasture," but that probably won't get a laugh out of my reader--there's no emphasis. It would be better to write, "There were cows." Also, the simplicity and invisibility of "There were" keeps the whole sentence's focus (in other words more emphasis) on "cows." The reader's attention isn't being divided between "cows," "grazed," and "pasture."

Passive voice (another naughty thing) can do the same thing. It can move the emphasis onto the word you want. Likewise, it uses boring weak words that won't detract from the word you want to emphasize.

When you want a particular emphasis, "was," may be just the word you need.

And when you want complete focus on a word, you might want to use the boring "was" to keep the whole sentence-focus on your word of choice.

Use to-be verbs to tone down overpowering styles

Every once in a while I run into a writer who is a master at writing in a gorgeous, specific, maybe even literary, style. Every sentence is rich with ideas and descriptions. Every sentence is packed full of beautiful words.

But every once in a while, it gets to be too much. It's not purple prose--not at all. It's just too gorgeous and rich, sentence upon sentence upon sentence. Throwing in a "was" sentence here and there can help tone it down and make it easier on the reader. You know how some desserts are so rich you can only eat a few bites? That's how this style is, and if it's present in a long passage or book, it can be almost too much for the reader to get through. A "was" sentence can help balance that.

Use to-be verbs for easy "digestion" and easy reading

Along those same lines, but slightly different, is what I think of as "reader's digestion." How easy is it for the reader to take in and digest what a passage is saying? In the style mentioned above, it may be so rich that the average reader can't digest it very fast. It may slow down their reading. And it does slow down the story's pacing (which isn't necessarily bad). Using a few "was" sentences will help with digestion.

Likewise, some ideas and concepts are complicated to take in cognitively, in and of themselves, simply because of subject matter. If you are trying to explain physics to your reader in your sci-fi book, getting all fancy in how you do it and packing your sentences full of info so that you avoid to-be verbs, is going to make it more difficult for your reader to follow and understand (and "digest") then breaking it down into short, clear sentences that use "was."

When dealing with these complicated subject matters, we as human beings like the familiar words and ideas to be at the beginning of the sentence and the new or complicated stuff at the end of the sentence. Again, one way to help do this is to use "was."

As long as you don't overuse it, the "was" sentence makes for easy reading. It becomes blah when it's used frequently with other blah words: Melinda was happy. The ice was cold.

When it's paired with complicated ideas or words, it can be perfect.

And there you have it. Everything you need to know about using or not using to-be verbs in fiction writing.


  1. This is brilliant. Thank you for explaining the why behind the rule. I'm bookmarking this post.

  2. Absolutely fantastic post.
    This subject of the to-be verbs is far more compext that writers may think it to be (like every aspect of writing... err...) I like your articles because they always go deep in the matter

  3. Great tips.I am a beginner writing.I would like to follow your tips.I like your writing style and language.Thank you so much for sharing this information.
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  4. Very well said! I only just found your blog, but I like your style, and you've made excellent points. If I may say, another time you might use "was" without it being a problem is as part of the past progressive tense. Ex. "Gene opened the door just as Arthur was coming up the drive." I feel like that gets left out of the discussion a lot of the time.

    1. Yes, that's true. Good point. Thanks for reading my blog! Sorry my reply is so late--I just discovered a bunch of comments I didn't get any notifications for!

  5. I'm only a half decade late to the game. But great post! "Was" is definitely WAY overused - especially by novice writers. I'm not against "was" - as in never use it, but I tell writers to use it mindfully, because sometimes you do want to put emphasis on the verb and not the subject. But ~90% of the time, an active voice will server your story/prose better.

    1. Yes, it can definitely get annoying when you are reading "was" in nearly every sentence O_o Using it "mindfully" is a great way to say it.

  6. Thank you!!! I'm always hyperaware of how often I use to-be verbs, especially when I'm writing in first person. It takes a little joy out of it, because sometimes I can't figure out where to remove them in a way that keeps the flow and sounds natural. It's genuinely a relief knowing I don't have to completely remove all of them to make my writing strong

    1. Oh yes, first person definitely has a valid reason to use more to-be verbs. If you cut too many, it probably wouldn't sound natural for most characters. Glad this was helpful. Best wishes.


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