I am a ‘Was Girl’

I didn’t know I was a ‘was girl’ until a few days ago. A fellow writer and I had exchanged chapters of our fantasy novels and she told me I used was a lot. She said it created passive sentences. Passive sentences are not good.

I had never been told this before – or if I had been, I didn’t hear it – , so I was a little sceptical. I ran a search through the chapter I was editing. To my surprise, there were 78 was words. Eek! My next chapter which had half the number of words as the previous had 47 was words, and the next had 75! Sometimes I had four in one paragraph. This wasn’t good.

My friend was on to something. I went through chapter 5 and with some effort reduced the number of was words from 78 to 5. Incredible! I tackled chapter 6 and instead of 47 was words, I came away with only 6. Chapter 7 went from having 75 to just 5. The ones I kept mostly appeared in dialogue.

Diane Tibert
Let’s get those was words!

The more I worked at reducing the number of was words, the easier it became. I discovered how to eliminate almost every one by simply removing it and changing a verb tense, changing it to another verb (a more active one) or rearranging the sentence. What surprised me most was that many times, the number of words overall reduced when I eliminated the passive verb.

For example:

From 16 words – If this creature was attached to Anna, he might be able to give it to her.

To 14 words – If this creature adored Anna, he might be able to give it to her.

From 12 words: Then he remembered there was no place for the monkey to sleep.

To 10 words: Then he remembered the monkey had no place to sleep.

From 85 words (4 was): “I do.” Argon was uncomfortable with her nearness but felt obligated to remain still. She was a good four inches taller than he which put him eye level with her slim neck and the plain silver chain she wore. Lady Jaspine was an elder lord and had served almost as long as Lord Val. She tended to the basic needs of the citizens of Maskil. She visited them in their dwellings and shops, and was often seen strolling the streets with one by her side.

To 76 words (0 was): “I do.” Argon grew uncomfortable with her nearness but felt obligated to remain still. She measured four inches taller than he, putting him eye level with her slim neck and the plain, silver chain she wore. Lady Jaspine, an elder lord, had served almost as long as Lord Val. She tended to the basic needs of the citizens of Maskil. She visited them in their dwellings and shops and often strolled with one by her side.

My objective now is to go through my entire fantasy novel (all 134,000 words) and remove as many was words as I can. I already feel I’m leaving passiveness behind and making my story more active.

Are you a ‘was writer’?

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17 thoughts on “I am a ‘Was Girl’

    • I was shocked when I first discovered I was a ‘was’ girl. But as they say, knowing is half the battle won. I agree: eliminating it does tighten up one’s writing. Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment.

  1. I’ll raise my hand and say “Guilty as charged.” I tend to use ‘was’ in first drafts and go back to revise. I credit other members of a critique group for pointing that out to me. Once I made some revisions to consciously remove them, I noticed how much more dynamic things could BE. Ooops did I really just type that. 🙂
    Thanks Diane for another great an informative post.

    • We are in the same guilty wagon. I often use ‘was’ during first drafts with the intent to remove them the next time through. When I’m writing first draft, I don’t want to force my brain to think grammatically correct; I need it to think with imagination only. Yes. Removing ‘was’ makes things better. Thanks for visiting, Ernesto, and for leaving a comment.

  2. Its even worse than we thought! Sadly the passive phenomenon goes beyond was and includes any auxilary of the verb BE. Confused? I know I was, maybe this will help. I found the examples much easier to understand than the lengthy and jumbled text pertaining to verbs, tenses and their passive nature!

    ACTIVE: They speak English.
    PASSIVE: English is spoken.

    ACTIVE: They spoke English.
    PASSIVE: English was spoken.

    ACTIVE: They will speak English.
    PASSIVE: English will be spoken.

    ACTIVE: They are going to speak English.
    PASSIVE: English is going to be spoken.

    ACTIVE: They are speaking English.
    PASSIVE: English is being spoken.

    ACTIVE: They were speaking English.
    PASSIVE: English was being spoken.

    ACTIVE: They have spoken English.
    PASSIVE: English has been spoken.

    ACTIVE: They had spoken English.
    PASSIVE: English had been spoken.

    So, now that I’ve learned to eliminate was from my writing, I now have to go back and make sure that I didn’t just exchange it for be, been, is, being, etc! The rest of the article these examples are taken from can be found on the Deanza College site. I hope it helps!

    • I clued into ‘were’ making a sentence passive soon after I leant about ‘was’. And now I’m scanning for those, too.

      To get me around some of those ‘was’ sentences, I think of the basic sentence structure: Who, What, How: He ran quickly. Benjamin slurped loudly. Once the basics are sorted then the sentence can be made more complex.

      Thanks, Lorana.

  3. What I love about my laptop is that it will tell me what percent of the text is passive. The percentage is usually very low, but now you’ve got me curious. I must go check my WIP.

    And congrats on winning a copy Joylene Butler’s eBook on my blog. 🙂

  4. Amazing difference. I’m editing a 150-age document that I wrote a few months ago and sentence structure changes are really improving it. The timing of this post is perfect for me. Thanks Diane!

    • It’s funny how we can write for years and never notice things like this. This morning, I searched for was in my work in progress. Out of 132,695 words, 2,405 are was. From my recent experience, for every was word removed, I eliminated two words. This means when I weed out most of these was words, I’ll reduce my manuscript by about 4,800 words! Incredible.

      Thanks for dropping by, Tracy.

  5. I went through the same realization a few months ago, and like you I was astonished to find how clearer my points were made without all the was words.

    Thanks for sharing the tips!

    Christi Corbett

  6. Wow! It really makes an impressive difference, doesn’t it? What writing you shared here has been greatly opened up by the removal of ‘was’. Good job, Diane! And thanks for the tip.

    • Yes, Lynn, it does make a noticable difference. I may still use ‘was’ in first draft, but I now know in the editing process I can search and destroy them.

      Thanks for dropping by.

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