Creative Combat Arms: The War on Was

Your crusade is not without consequence.

The problem with universally agreeable advice is the lack of dissent against it. Since there is no dissent, there is no analysis on possible negatives, no connotation that the advice, if followed rigorously, systemically and completely, could cause a problem. There is no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Writing sites all over the web will tell you to kill passives: passive voice and passive verbs. Attribute action. Bring power to your prose with punchier verbs. Indeed, this is a good thing, and most of these sites affect to know a good thing is something you can never have too much of.

‘Was’ and ‘is’ are not punchy verbs. In fact, they’re the king and queen of passive verbs. They just sit there, not doing, just being. They may as well have a target painted on. And while some websites will tell a writer they need not excise all “was”, none of them will tell you when to use it. Most will give you glaring examples of how much ‘was’ sucks:

NOT: John was hungry.
BUT: John hungered.

NOT: Bob was determined to beat the deadline.
BUT: Bob rushed to finish.

You don’t want your writing to suck. And the wases are doing nothing for you; they’re just sitting there, being. So you kill the was. You seek and destroy, chasing ‘was’ from the pages without mercy or hesitation. I’m not exaggerating. One writing teacher says on her site:

Creative writing instructors tend to get obsessive about removing passive verbs from fiction. I’ve harped on this subject so often I have occasionally caused students to agonize over how to avoid using “was” and other forms of “to be” completely.

As a reviewer of many new writers just learning how to hone their skills in the fine art of storytelling, I have seen the War on Was up close. It needs to stop. Your crusade is not without consequence.

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Ever hear of water poisoning? Or oxygen poisoning? If the very essentials of life can kill you in large quantities, what do you think will happen to your story if it gets too much of something?

Do you know what happens when all your verbs are crammed, stuffed, packed with action? When all trees crowd and all roads stretch and all mountains tower and nothing stays still? When everything’s moving, shaking, careening and ka-booming? The same thing that happens if you lived a full day of your life on a roller coaster, getting jostled and bounced and turned topsy and thrown turvy in constant, relentless, endless motion:

Nausea. After that, the fervent desire to just go home and rest.

We appreciate contrasts. NBA players are only tall next to average people, not each other on the basketball court. A 40 mile per hour motorist isn’t slow until he’s crawling through 60 mph traffic. But you need the average heighted person to appreciate how tall that ball player is. You need the slow motorist to appreciate speed when you see it. That’s ‘was’ in writing. If everything is moving and punchy then nothing is moving. Nothing is punchy.

Beyond the contrast, realize you are waging war with part of a sentence, and only a part. What happens to the other parts of your sentence when you start renovating and overhauling the verb? Your crusade is not without consequence. Getting punchier is all well and good when John’s hungry and Bob’s rushing but what happens when you want the focus to be the subject or the direct object or anything else other than some show-stealing action verb? You ever notice that the tips sites don’t give this as an example of ‘was’ sucks: “To be or not to be, that is the question”? Or how about Ray Bradbury when he said in Fahrenheit 451, “It was a pleasure to burn”?

Your crusade is not without consequence. I’ve said it a few times for a reason. Look at my mantra through the lens of ‘was sucks’. If you make the verb punchier, how could you not lose some of the alliterative appeal of the sentence, or dilute the grandness inherent in the subject’s metaphor?

Understand that changing a part changes the whole.

Finally, you are the storyteller. That goes beyond the narrator; it extends well past taut action, crisp dialogue and punchy verbs. You are the key… the window to events, people and places we the reader cannot imagine without you.

It is your duty to report their state of being faithfully. Sometimes, some things just are.

Now don’t go taking my advice to extremes and leaving a field full of passive voice/passive verbs. Some sentences (sometimes many sentences) need that loving touch of your overhaul. But leave the “find and replace” function alone. Stop the witch hunt on was. Instead of arbitrarily hating was, look at the whole sentence. Then look how that sentence fits in your paragraph, and how that paragraph fits into the overall story. If it feels right, if it sounds good, if the actiony, punchy, newly realized sentence version 2.0 just doesn’t have the same flow then consider carefully. You may be better off leaving was as is.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Creative Combat Arms: The War on Was

  1. Eleanor

    I am cheering now. Really. This has needed to be said for far too long. Auxiliary verbs do serve a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to sit humbly alongside exciting action verbs and allow them all the glory. Because like you said, if all the verbs take the glory, then none of them really deserve it.

  2. Robert Qualkinbush

    You know why writing teachers harp on this? This is my personal theory. It’s because passive verbs are one of the few things that one can identify when dealing with writing suckitude. Look at the second chance manuscripts at Critters and you’ll see suckitude galore, and most writing teachers will (if they’re honest) confess that they’re at a loss to figure out why. But they’re EXPERTS, so they’ll evade. But guess what? Go to Critters and you’ll read writing that makes you want to off-yourself, and it’s written with active verbs. In fact in all my years at Critters, there was only one author I told to switch to a more active voice. Much of this folderol comes from Strunk and White. You know what Orson Scott Card said about Strunk and White? I quote from his Literary bootcamp class, “If there was one book I would ban from existence, it’s Elements of Style, In fact, a British English professor had analyzed Elements of Style and found that Strunk and White violate their own rules at every turn.” Look it up. It’s true.
    Virginia Tufte has written a wonderful book called “Grammar as Style.” which is now out of print. In any case she discusses the purposes of passive voice. She then re-writes the (well-written) passive voice in active voice and shows you how it utterly trashes the original.
    Further, here’s something for you James, since everyone can use a little humor in life:

    The room was walked into by a man by whom strong, handsome features were had. A woman was met by him. The bed was lain upon by her. Then the bed was lain upon by him. Clothing was removed from them both. Sex was had. Climax was achieved. Afterwards cigarettes were smoked by them. Suddenly the door was opened by the husband of the woman by whom the bed was laid upon. Screams occurred and there were angry words. Jealousy was felt by the man by who the gun was held. The gun was discharged. The flying of bullets took place. Impact was felt by bodies. The floor was hit by bodies. Remorse was then felt by the man by whom the gun was held. The gun was turned upon himself…

    that’s the from the introduction of the Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus

  3. Pingback: Creative Combat Arms: Infoglossing | fictigristle

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  5. Your post has left me feeling.. abused. It’s like that SVU episode I watched when the detectives decided to tell a woman getting married that she might have been assaulted by the best man a year ago. It’s taken the writing community years… YEARS to beat the passive voice out of me… and you’re telling me that they may have, might have, hurt me!

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