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.