Saturday, 27 November 2010

Too much use of the word 'was'

How many of us have used ‘was’ far too much in our narrative? Look back through your stories and you will see that it occurs more often than is necessary, which seems crazy because it seems such an innocuous, inoffensive word, but too much use of it can be detrimental to your narrative. This is because it has a tendency to slow overall sentence rhythm and stutter the flow of writing, making it appear clunky and contrived.

Of course, it must be said, we all do it. It’s a matter of habit, but bad habits can be just as bad as using bad grammar.

So why does this word limit narrative, and why?

To begin with, it acts like a barrier between you and your reader by limiting how you apply yourself descriptively. Your role as writer is to transport the reader into the story through description, dialogue and narrative. How effective these are together is down to you as a writer. Sentence structure plays an important role in linking these three elements. Even more important are the words to choose for each sentence and some of the words we like using the most are ‘was’ and ‘there’.

Rather than it being a case of lazy writing, it is more like the writer doesn’t know an alternative way of communicating something without resorting to writing ‘this was here’ or that was there’ or ‘she was at the door’ or ‘he was standing in the hallway’.

We write sentences like this without even thinking about it. It’s a matter of habit. But why write any differently? Well, the drawback with too much use of ‘was’ is that it tends to lead to a reliance on too much telling and not enough showing, and as all writers know, ‘telling’ can kill any story by making it just too clunky to read.

So how do you know when you use ‘was’ excessively? That’s down to practice, practice, practice. It’s a matter of being thorough when you read through and edit your work. Don’t be afraid to be judicious when it comes to throwing out words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes or chapters that don’t make the story work.

Take a look at these sentences:

1. Jane walked into her office. There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity. In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.

2. The temperature was cold and it made him shudder. He licked his lips. There was a bitter taste in the air. This was the coldest he’d known.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with these simple sentences, the placement of ‘was’ makes it hard to expand on the action. The word ‘was’ tells us either something happened, or something occupies a place or position and therefore there isn’t much room to go into detail.

Let’s look at one of them in more detail:

Jane walked into the office.

There is nothing actually wrong with this sentence. This is simply informing the reader of a character’s action and doesn’t need adding to because it sets us up for the next sentence.

There was a note on her desk, inviting her curiosity.

This sentence tells us something, but doesn’t actually show us. ‘There’ and ‘was’ act as inhibitors to the sentence to stop further description. If you do expand on it you may end up saying ‘there’ and ‘was’ again.

In the corner, there was a bunch of flowers on the chair. It made her smile.

Again, this sentence is simply telling us there are flowers on the chair and that it makes her smile. There is no expansion in the description.

Overall, these paragraphs lack enough description, interest and sentence structure. They tell us, but they don’t show us.

Now what if you did it like this:

1. Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk. It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.

This second paragraph gives more for the reader to work with. Instead of telling the reader there was a note and a bunch of flowers, it allows to reader to share the curiosity, by showing it instead. Each instance of ‘was’ has been eliminated.

2. The temperature dropped, made him shudder. He licked his lips, tasted the bitter air. This was the coldest he’d known.
Notice that this second set of paragraphs is tighter and reads better. They offer the reader some interest by showing or hinting something more, all by removing the word ‘was’.

You’ll notice that example 2 still contains a necessary ‘was’: This was the coldest he’d known. In this instance, the sentence needs it to convey the character’s inner thoughts.

Let’s look at the re-written first example in more detail so see how it has improved:

Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk.

By removing the words ‘there’ and ‘was’ we can set up a neat following sentence by making the character spot the note rather than simply telling the reader it’s there. This leads into the next sentences:

It immediately sparked her curiosity, but then a hint of colour caught her waning attention and she turned to see the bunch of flowers on the chair in the corner. They made her smile.

We’re informing the reader that the character is curious, and we’re showing how the flowers catch her attention, rather than telling the reader. Now our curiosity is sparked, we’re interested to know who they’re from, and it’s all done without a single ‘there’ or ‘was’.

Of course, knowing which ones to take out and which to keep are down to practice, but by using fewer of them in your narrative you keep your sentences tight and rhythmic. It also allows you to show rather than tell. This is fundamental in your narrative.

Just like most fiction writing, you need to find balance. Using ‘was’ is still important as long as it is used in the right places, it’s a word you simply can’t write without, but because it is a verb used in the past tense, writers rely on it too much, and just like adjectives and adverbs, you should use them sparingly.

‘There’ works in the same way. We still need it, but there are better ways to describe than always referring to ‘There was this’ or ‘there was something’. For example:

There was a light in the doorway.

This description is boring because it tells us, but doesn’t show us. The sentence could be much better, like this:

A faint orange glow flickered from the doorway...

See how different this sentence is?  It shows us there is a light; it adds a little atmosphere and allows the reader to want to know more, all by removing ‘there’ and also ‘was.’

Just remember to take a little time over your sentence structure. Just ask yourself, ‘Am I using ‘was’ and ‘there’ too much? If so, start removing them. You will end up with much tighter sentences, better constructed paragraphs and better choice of words to engage your reader.

Next time: Using the senses.

13 comments:

  1. "was"is a yellow-flag word like "thought' "realised", "saw" and "noticed". They slow down your writing

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  2. That were interesting.

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    1. Thats a good one! LOL

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  3. excessive uses of adjectives can make a story boring. in example 1 you overused the adjectives. Sentence could've been written: "Jane walked into her office, spotted a note on her desk. It caught her attention but then she saw the bouquet of flowers on the chair in the corner. She smiled." If I saw a strange note on my desk, it would make me more attentive. Thanks for not being an e prime groupie on this and stating that the verb to be is necessary in writing.

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  4. Excellent article. However, regarding the example of the woman seeing the flowers in her office. You said "They made her smile". Isn't that telling us. Why not simply say she smiled.

    Regardless, it's weird and overwhelming the amount of rules abiding in today's so called "literary culture". And the line of which ones are correct and which ones are not can drive a writer insane. I say stick with 1. Show don't tell 2. Tighten your writing 3. Minimal character description because if the reader is truly a reader then he or she will have the imaginative brain power to produce a picture of what the character looks like to them.

    Lastly, writing is an art. Words are the writers best friend. But to write less also indicates a paradox. Strange. I just say follow the basic rules I said and your vision. You should be alright there. It's too easy nowadays to fall in the trap of writing for the lowest common denominator, that somehow forcing the reader to use their brain and imagine is a bad thing, showing signs of a "Lazy Writer". Is giving the reader everything, like food in a tube, so he or she doesn't have to think, really the right direction? Think about this. I apologize for my writing is coming across. I'm in a rush at the moment. But overall nice post.

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  5. Another great post... this is very informative! Thank you!

    Let me ask you this. I am currently working on my NANO novel... 55,000 plus words, currently. There are just over 400 instances of the word 'was'. Too many? As you state, we can't completely avoid the word, and it does have a legitimate place in our writing. I'm just trying to decide if this is a problem area for me... 400 seems a lot.

    Four paragraphs contain the word six times. I am thinking I definitely need to pay particular attention to those paragraphs.

    Thank you again, AJ! I will have to come back and read some of your other posts... time for this girl to turn in... busy day tomorrow.

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  6. Thank you for your writing tips. I read your piece on qualifiers and then when I came to this article, all the qualifiers you have used leapt out at me - how does one know how many are too many?

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  8. This helped! Thanks! I hope to read more! :)

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  9. This is... amazing. Thank you. I'm working on the second draft of my first novel, and this one simple rule has created way more work than I ever would have expected. You explained it perfectly, and it has made a fundamental change to the way I look at my writing. Already I can see a huge difference in sections that before seemed dry and stilted. Fantastic stuff - I'll be following your blog avidly from this point on!

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    1. Thanks Steve. And keep at it because the more you write and take on board what you learn, the better you become.

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  10. I don't agree that writers should always "show" not "tell". Telling has the advantage of being succinct. Wikipedia has a good article on the subject in which this rule is put under some scrutiny. Bear in mind that your improved version of Jane walking into the office is half as long again as the original. That would turn a 75,000 word novel into one of 100,000 words. Also I don't much like her attention waning (about the note) so soon after her curiosity was sparked - why, when she hasn't read the note yet? Anyway, thanks for your useful insights and interesting blog.

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    1. They don't have to show constantly, just at key points in the narrative.

      If you would rather tell and not show, then do so, there is no law against it. My advice is there for writers who want to get on that publishing ladder, rather than face life in a slush pile due to crap writing, because editors will not tolerate too much telling. That's just a fact. I've worked in publishing and editors/publishers are notoriously hard to please.

      As or the example, it was just that. I didn't have to show the preceding text, or why Jane's interest was waning at that point (and it wasn't waning about the note), nor did I show the subsequent narrative. Her curiosity was sparked by the note just being there (she didn't have to read it to be curious!).

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