No matter how much time and energy we authors put into querying agents and editors (or conversely learning the ins and outs of self-publishing) it’s all wasted if we don’t have a polished piece of work. One way to make sure your book is the best possible product is to brush up on your nuts-and-bolts writing skills. This also saves money in editing fees.
I’m pretty sure everyone has been in a critique group, had a beta reader, or listened to a creative writing workshop where somebody lectured you about avoiding the word “was.” We are routinely told to eliminate all forms of the verb “to be” from our prose.
Well-meaning mentors tell us “was” is “passive,” so we must avoid it at all costs, along with adverbs, run-on sentences, and naming all of your characters the similar names.
These experts were repeating “The Rules” they heard from their own critique groups, beta readers, and workshop leaders when they started writing.
Sometimes “The Rules” are wrong.
This particular rule has good intentions, but shows a lack of understanding of grammar. The verb “to be” has many functions in modern English and some have nothing to do with the passive voice.
I’m old enough that I actually received an education in English grammar, but I think it may not be a major focus in most schoolrooms because I find a lot of writers have not been taght the basics.
Past tenses in English
- Simple Past
- Present Perfect
- Past Continuous (or “Progressive”)
- Present Perfect
- Past Perfect (or “Pluperfect”)
- Past Perfect Continuous.
Some of these tenses are created by using various forms of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” They’re called “auxiliary verbs” (sometimes helping verbs) when they are used this way.
I threw up.
I have been throwing up since I ate that chicken.
Here an action starts in the past and comes up to the present.
I was throwing up when Mrs. Smith arrived to invite me to tea.
A continuous action in the past gets interrupted by the simple past. “Was” is necessary to create this tense with the verb “to throw up.” “Was” in this auxiliary function has nothing to do with the independent meaning of the verb “was” meaning “existed in the past.”
I had threw up right before she came to the door.
An action happened in the past BEFORE the past of the story. “Had” is the auxiliary verb that creates this tense. This is different from the stand-alone meaning of the verb “had” meaning “possessed in the past”.
Past Perfect continuous:
I had been throwing up for hours.
An action happened in the past over a period of time until it got interrupted by another action. The verbs “to have” AND “to be” are combined with the primary verb “to throw up” to make this tense.
These tenses have nothing to do with the Passive VOICE
Throwing up was caused by chicken. In the passive voice, we use forms of “to be” when the object of the verb becomes the subject of the sentence.
Or, as my college English professor would say:
The passive voice is avoided whenever possible by good writers.
Then, just to be confusing, we have the Subjunctive MOOD. (Sometimes called the “Unreal Conditional” tense.)
If I were smarter, I’d have brought my own lunch.
It also uses the auxiliary verb “to be”. Are you starting to see what a multi-purpose word “was” is? The word “were” doesn’t put us in the past. It tells us he’s not actually smart.
But what about this?
If I was even smarter, I’d have shot my uncle instead of the bear.
This is incorrect grammar, because the subjunctive uses “were,” not “was.”
So “was” should be eliminated here, right?
If you’re aiming for grammatical prose, absolutely, but if you’re writing fiction, it’s probably just fine. You don’t want all your characters to sound like college professors.
What does this all mean?
Sometimes “was” and “were” are absolutely necessary for meaning and by no means “passive.”
I was just sitting there when the bear mauled me.
This means something different from:
I just sat there when the bear mauled me.
Eliminating “was” changes the meaning from “the bear mauled me with no provocation,” to “I didn’t react when the bear mauled bit me.”
However, your critique group didn’t steer you totally wrong when they told you to be wary of “was.”
This isn’t because the word is always passive, but because it can be part of lazy sentence construction.
Beginning writers tend to write flabby sentences like this:
There was a squirrel sitting on the picnic table and he was eating my peanut butter sandwich. He was looking at me like I was nobody to be scared of, so I decided it was time to get my shotgun.
That can be cleaned up by using simpler verbs:
A squirrel sat on the picnic table eating my peanut butter sandwich. He looked me in the eye without a speck of fear. I went for my shotgun.
That’s easier to read and gives a stronger, clearer image.
Another note on past tenses
Most readers say they prefer reading a book written in the past tense, but writing in the past can be difficult when you decide to do a flashback. Yes, you could just not write flashbacks, but sometimes the story absolutely requires one. That’s when you go into the past perfect tense. But you don’t have to stay there, because it sounds awkward.
He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he had run into a gang of squirrels who had attacked him with giant acorns.
Actually, you only have to use the past perfect (the “had” construction) once or twice to introduce the flashback, then continue in the simple past and readers will automatically adjust.
He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he ran into a gang of squirrels who attacked him with giant acorns.
It’s all in the distant past, but we know that without all the extra “hads.”
Sometimes it’s best just to trust your readers.
So, when you’re doing your edits, a search for “was” in your manuscript can help clean up your prose, but we’re not looking to eliminate “was” because “was” is “passive” because that’s a clunky use of grammar. Maybe we’ll look at passive voice in the near future.