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The

Wa s
Reduction Team

Give your writing a


sparkle by making
your prose more
active.
The Was Reduction Team

Hi there peeps – consider the verb was; quite an innocuous little member of the verb „to be‟
don‟t you think? Past tense, and almost invisible in both reading and writing – so it‟s a good
idea to check you haven‟t got a swarm of them hiding in some of your paragraphs, especially
if you write in past tense. And take note that the plural, were, is also over-used.

Now, I can hear you thinking – why should I remove something that‟s invisible? Here are two
reasons:

 Agents and editors will spot the little blighters straight away – they know that over use
of this verb weakens the writing because ...
 There is often a more appropriate passive or active verb and sometimes even a power-
verb.

I suppose you‟d like an example of a power-verb:

Here is a weak was construction: The boy was sad when he learned that his dog was
dead. (Weak verb to be + adjectives: sad, dead).

And now the power-verb: The boy wept when he learned that his dog had died. (Strong
verbs: wept, died).

I know ... it‟s not exactly killer prose – but you can see that it is more active.

About was and -ing constructions:

You can sometimes lose the was -ing construction by changing to an -ed verb (was staring =
stared) or change the likes of was looking to something more active like: busied himself
inspecting.

The good news is – it's easy to empower your weaker sentences: with your document open,
press the Ctrl key and the F key on your keyboard at the same time.

 A dialogue box pops up – type was (or were) into the 'Find what:' field.
 Click the Reading Highlight button and select 'Highlight All'

Hey Presto! Every was gets a yellow background; then if you scan through the document and
it looks as if someone has been kicking a wasps‟ nest in some of your paragraphs – you know
where to start weeding; but checking each was in turn, even when they are sporadic, is a good
way to identify, and then strengthen, any weak prose in your baby ...

Oh, and don‟t overdo the pruning; a lot of the time was works better – use your intuition.

And when your writing is flowing – pay no heed as you type was – wait until you edit.

On the next page you can see how, by finding alternatives to was, even the dullest prose can
be given a wee sparkle.
Yikes! ... Just look at this little lot, hiding in a first-draft scene that I wrote:

“... The endorphin-buzz kicked in about half way back. Vic breathed deep of the icy
November mist to cool his heaving lungs. He slowed his steady dog-trot to a walk when the
lights of the Lochailort Hotel came into view in the distance. The annual reunion was the high
point of the year for Vic and his old section, but the rigours of time had relentlessly pared
them down to a mere handful. Maybe even less than that: Mickey Brennan failed to book in
yesterday and his telephone number was no longer in service. Not like Mickey to miss a gig –
one could only assume the worst.
The Hotel was teeming with merry-makers from near and far, arrived to celebrate
Saint Andrew‟s day. Bunting festooned every wall, every doorway, with the blue and white
saltire of the Scottish flag. It sounded like everyone was talking at once in the bar, or laughing
even louder. Vic went to the small reception desk to collect his key and wallet from the safe.
In front of him was a young American couple; the man was well made, and had a hint of New
York in his accent.”

And after I called in The Was Reduction Team:


“... The endorphin-buzz kicked in about half way back. Vic breathed deep of the icy
November mist to cool his heaving lungs. He slowed his steady dog-trot to a walk when the
lights of the Lochailort Hotel came into view in the distance. The annual reunion marked the
high point of the year for Vic and his old section, but the rigours of time had pared their
number down to a mere handful. Maybe even less than that: Mickey Brennan failed to book in
yesterday and his telephone number didn‟t seem to be in service. Not like Mickey to miss a
gig – one could only assume the worst.
The hotel was teeming with merry-makers from near and far, arrived to celebrate Saint
Andrew‟s day. Bunting festooned every wall, every doorway, with the blue and white saltire
of the Scottish flag. It sounded like everyone was talking at once in the bar, or laughing even
louder. Vic went to the small reception desk to collect his key and wallet from the safe. In
front of him stood a young American couple; the man looked well made, and had a hint of
New York in his accent.”

Key: was neutral alternative active verb power-verb

Note: although was teeming could have been changed to teemed, my intuition told me that
teeming has a more continuous feel to it.

Happy weeding ... and do read the following article by author Rebecca Hamilton
on the subject of The Was Demon for further inspiration.

© Stef Mcdaid 2010


To catch it in a sort of special picture: The Was Demon - by
author Rebecca Hamilton http://rebecca-hamilton.com/

“Was” is one my “flag words”. When it pops up, I’m always exploring why. Can it
be removed? Sometimes, was indicated a passive construction, such as: The hat
was worn by the lady. To make the sentence active (and fix the subject of the
sentence) we’d say “The lady wore a hat.”
Sometimes, it’s a matter of sentence subject. In this case, the woman was the
subject of the sentence. What if it were the hat? Then the was wouldn’t be so bad,
right? Well, perhaps more can be done to improve though. Which is why I say was
is a flag word for me.
Maybe I’d say, “The hat on the lady’s head flopped to one side.” Surely, if the hat is
important enough to be the subject, we could pay it a little more mind.

Let’s look at more examples.


“She was sad.”
“She felt sad.”
Both are weak. The subject of the sentence is correct, but we are still distanced
from the character. Step inside her shoes. How does “sad” effect her?
“She cried.”
It’s simple, but it could work. Usually with emotion we want more though.
“Tears slipped from her eyes, trickled down her cheek, and plunged from her chin
onto her jeans.”
Do we really need all that? Can’t say, it’s out of context. Maybe you just need she
cried. Maybe you need something in between. Maybe you need more. But this
shows you how to bring the story life on the page by finding ways to cut “was”.

Here’s another example:


“The vase was on the table.”
“The vase sat on the table.”
Both are weak. I often see words like sat and felt being used to fix “was”. If only it
were that easy! You can make descriptions active. Not that you need to every
time, of course.
Consider this:
“The flowers in the vase on the table drooped from lack of water and too much
sunlight.”
Not only is the vase on the table now, it has drooping flowers. We have
characterization (the character isn’t watering her flowers) and ambiance (the
room is often full of a lot of natural light) So much better than: “There was a vase
on the table with flowers. Mary wasn’t the flower-watering type of person. The
room had a lot of natural sunlight.” (wouldn’t you say?)

Add the word “was” to your word find list. Open your creative eye in your mind
and see how you can bring your prose to life by getting rid of was .