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Getting The “Was” Out

I‘m obsessed. And not with something normal, like Downton Abbey, or salted caramel ice cream. No, I have turned totally crazy over the word “was.”

It’s a silly little word. The kind of word you don’t even notice, until you read something that relies so heavily on those three beige letters that you just want to scream.

If you read really good fiction (or really good anything for that matter), you won’t see much of “was,” because the truth is, it’s a terribly dull word. Pick any sentence with the word “was.”

I was walking down the street.

BORING. “Was walking” doesn’t say much. I raced down the street. Or, maybe: I walked past a house with a cat sleeping in the window and thought of Samantha’s lazy plans for the afternoon. You get the point. “Was” has always been a signal to me that a sentence just isn’t done yet.

So as I’m editing my manuscript, I stop every few pages and do a word search for “was” and I am usually shocked to see how many are highlighted in yellow. When I started this round of edits, I had over 1200 instances of the word “was” in just 220 pages. Eee-gad. I had that many unfinished sentences.

The thing is, it can be really tricky getting rid of that stupid, dirty word. At times I have to completely re-conceive how it is I want to say what I’m saying. I sit and stare at sentences for minutes on end, thinking, “there’s no other way to say this.” But there’s always another way. In fact, there are countless ways to say just about anything. It’s my job as a writer to find the best way, and the best way almost never includes “was.”

So, yes, I’m obsessed. The very sight of the stupid word makes me angry, vindictive. Out out damn spot.

And I haven’t even gotten the “were”s yet, or the only slightly less offensive “had.”

This could take a while.


  1. Kelly
    Feb 14, 2013

    I’d say be cautious of using was a verb (e.g. I was hot), but don’t get rid of it entirely as its an important word for past-tense conjugations! In your example above, the verb in the sentence isn’t “was” it’s “walking.” I agree that race is a better verb than walk, but that has nothing to do with was (you could easily phrase it “I was racing”; that’s a different verb tense than “I raced.”)

    Write what comes naturally for your voice and characters. Don’t accidentally overwrite! I remember quite liking your novel…

    • April
      Feb 15, 2013

      Hi, Kelly,
      Thanks. Yes, there’s a reason I used the word “obsessed.” I don’t think it’s a good thing really, but now that the word seems to jump off the page at me I have trouble not paying attention to it. Maybe I need to stop doing searches for it…


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