WAS Gone Bad

Should Writers Avoid Using WAS? Or Not?

I’ve heard variations of the same discussion among writers over the years, which essentially centers around a single question:

“Is WAS a bad word to use in writing?”

The answer, as with so many things in writing, is a bit more complicated than “yes” or “no.”

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

And that fact gets some writers panicked, developing WAS-phobia, just in case they’ll use it “wrong.”

These writers aren’t all wrong. Face it; sometimes WAS is bad to use in writing.

But why can WAS be bad? And how can you get rid of it?

The answers are pretty simple.

You can usually find a better (read: stronger) way of saying what you’re trying to say than using WAS.

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

BAD WAS #1: Find a case of WAS and chances are you good that you found a case of “tell” instead of “show.”

Take this sentence: Emily was embarrassed.

Whatever you’re writing, you want the reader to experience the story, to be there with the characters. WAS in cases like the sentence above inform the reader of what’s happening without pulling them into the narrative and helping them experience it.

The fix? Pull out WAS and replace it with vivid details: Show that Emily’s cheeks are flushed, that she wants the ground to open up beneath her and swallow her up — or whatever would be fitting details for your story and character.

Then the reader will know Emily is embarrassed because they experienced it right along with her. You didn’t just report the facts.

Search for instances of WAS + ADJECTIVE (happy, angry, tired, thirsty, etc.), and try give showing details instead.

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Photo by Taylor Jacobs on Unsplash

BAD WAS #2: Yank WAS 90% of the time when it’s connected to an -ING verb.

Joe was sitting. Joe was talking. Joe was writing.

Unless the ongoing action is crucial to the moment (Joe was talking on the phone as he fell down the stairs because he was distracted), plain past tense packs a stronger punch:

Joe sat. Joe talked. Joe wrote.

Sometimes you can find an even stronger verb altogether. Instead of Joe walked, how about if he marched, padded, or sauntered?

Do a search for “was” in a manuscript (most word processors can do this quite easily) and challenge yourself to have no more than one “was” per page.

This exercise will require you to find strong verbs. You may surprise yourself with the creative verbs you come up with!

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Photo by Richie Lugo on Unsplash

BAD WAS #3: Passive voice.

Okay, no panicking at that term. Passive voice is simply when stuff happens to someone or something instead them doing the thing themselves.

Examples of passive voice:

  • The song was sung by Mary.
  • The fence was jumped by the boys.

In each case, chances are pretty high that focusing on Mary and the boys will make for a stronger statement than focusing on the song or the fence:

  • Mary sang the song.
  • The boys jumped the fence.

Writers can easily slip into passive voice without realizing it, and that can lead to weak writing because the focus of the sentence shifts away from the character.

Active voice makes a writing feel immediate; passive voice dilutes the action and adds padding with extra words.

So avoid passive voice . . . unless it serves one of the few important purposes of passive voice. (I’ll get to those in another post soon!)

If your WAS fits another category than any of the three above, it might be just fine. Don’t panic; you can keep it.

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by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

If in doubt, though, consider changing it up.

Can you find a way to make the sentence stronger without WAS?

If so, great. If not, that’s fine too. No need to join the ranks of WAS-phobics!

Written by

USA Today bestselling & award-winning author of women’s fiction & romance. Word nerd. Chocoholic. Mom. https://taplink.cc/annette.lyon

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