Between Christmas and New Years, I went online to download an e-book to see what one looked like on my e-reader. After fifteen hours of searching, I didn't download any books. I would find interesting teasers (back page blurbs and synopses) but, when I went to read the opening pages, the irritating overuse of WAS, WERE, and WAS/WERE-INGS (a WAS or WERE followed by an ING-ending word) made for blatantly boring, omniscient narratives that turned me off. These e-books read like first drafts--not polished stories.
As a writer and storyteller, it's been drilled into me that was is a wuss when it comes to action-active, imagery-provoking sentence structures. But there's another problem with the overuse--the repetition of the sound of "wuz" which buzzes on a subconscious level. At what point does the word become so irritating that the reader stops reading and throws the book against the wall? Okay, in reality, I dare not throw my e-reader against anything because it's too costly to replace, but the urge was there.
I sampled some of those first e-chapter pages for the overuse of WAS and found: 1 WAS every 15, 19, 21, 22, 35, 37, and 43 words. That's approximately one per sentence! Extrapolating that, WAS could appear (and buzz, buzz, buzz) anywhere from 6,633 to 2,325 times in a 100,000 word novel. That's also a range of from 16 to 6 per page. But, those may be conservative numbers because I came across sentences with doubled-up wases like: "What she WAS THINKING WAS GIVING her a headache."
More appalling to me is that one of those e-books had an author's acknowledgment to her critique partners thanking them for their expertise. Did none of those people tell her about the repetition of WAS and WERE? Or that she wrote passively?
Then again, what would make a writer consistently use and overuse WAS and WERE? Likely it stems from being educated to use the English language, grammar, and punctuation to communicate--to "report" and "tell, not show"--thus generating such passive constructions as The man was bitten by the dog. No, this passive sentence cannot be fixed simply by changing WAS BITTEN to the active verb "bite" because that would make no sense (The man bite by the dog.). "Man" and "dog" are also generalities--they do not evoke a vivid image in a reader's mind. Better is: The Doberman bit Charlie, the mailman. (Now we have a mental picture of what happened and to whom.)
Along with WAS and WERE are the "helpers"--those ING-ending words (which are verb-phrases) that should be axed in favor of action-active words. Such exchanges include:
Passive To Active
was going went (but better would be stating
exactly HOW they went)
were traveling traveled
was eating ate
were enjoying enjoyed
was gathering gathered
were generating generated
Now after saying how bad WAS and WERE are, I have to also admit they do have their uses and some passivity and telling have merit. The difference boils down to a writer that writes and a storyteller who knows how to use verbs to create mental pictures for the reader and keeps the reader engrossed in a tale.
You might also go to http://pennwritersarea6.wordpress.com. I was their guest blogger talking about how writers sabotage their story. This blog post included an exercise-challenge on "was." Consider taking the challenge and see how you fare.
I also urge you to make one of your self-editing mantras: WAS is a wuss. If you do, you'll be ahead of those "rough-draft quality" e-books I keep finding.
Catherine E. McLean
"The writer works hard so that the reader doesn't have to."--CRAFT & TECHNIQUE x Paul Raymond Martin
Stop back to this blog on March 1 for The Sampler's: "There and There Was."
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