In a previous post I made a confession: I am a was girl. Was makes our sentences passive and we need to wipe them from the face of our stories unless they’re absolutely necessary. But how do we go about doing that?
Knowing we must do something is different than knowing how to do that something.
Let’s take a look at how I’ve tackled the was words in my current project, the fantasy novel Shadows in the Stone. Chapter 15 contained 4814 words, including 86 was words. When I finished, there were only six of those three-letter words remaining.
Certain sentences are no brainers. Remove was and turn the verb which follows to past tense:
From: To his surprise, she was wearing his tan-coloured shirt.
To: To his surprise, she wore his tan-coloured shirt.
Other times, simply remove was and insert an interesting verb that should have gone there in the first place:
From: It was strange yet enchanting.
To: It felt strange yet enchanting.
The above examples are the easy sentences in which to eliminate the was word, but not all sentences fall into these two scenarios. In certain instances, the entire sentence must be rearranged:
From: She was the most beautiful woman he knew, and though he considered this search to be his duty, it was also his pleasure.
To: He knew no woman more enchanting than Anna of Niamh, and while he considered this search to be his duty, it evoked profound pleasure.
Still other sentences force me to cut them from their paragraphs to labour over in isolation. Only then can I work through the various possibilities to find one that functions with the same meaning without was.
She was glad he hadn’t mentioned it.
She was relieved he hadn’t mentioned it.
To her relief, he hadn’t mentioned it.
Much to her relief, he hadn’t mentioned it.
Thankfully, he hadn’t mentioned it.
Fortunately, he hadn’t mentioned it.
Fortunately, he had left his thoughts unspoken.
Fortunately, he had kept his observations unspoken.
Once happy with the sentence, I fit it back into its original location to see if it gels with the rest of the paragraph:
The desire to retain his scent had overwhelmed her and incited her to wear one of his shirts. Fortunately, he had kept his observations unspoken. Her cheeks warmed thinking of her response if he had decided to question her.
Occasionally I find a sentence that doesn’t want to give up was because to do so changes the way I see the scene unfold:
He was about to explore places he’d only dreamt about with the woman who ignited his blood as no other.
TIP: If a sentence gives you trouble, fall back to the basic sentence structure – who, what, how – to see if it helps.
Anna spoke softly.
In other words: subject, verb, adverb
Argon hit hard.
These are simple sentences, but the simplicity makes it obvious where the subject, verb and adverb fit into a sentence. Applying this rule to a sentence containing was, it automatically eliminates the three-letter word:
New Scotland was given its name by Scottish settlers.
Scottish settles gave New Scotland its name.
I hope this was helpful helps others who are afflicted with the same writing problem as I.