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use of the word "was" : Writers' Block Party • Writing Forum | WritersDigest.com

use of the word "was"

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jackitaylor
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use of the word "was"

Postby jackitaylor » Mon Oct 16, 2017 7:43 pm

Something from the critique area got me thinking. I've read about being careful to not overuse the word 'was'. Aren't there times when rephrasing an idea, removing a 'was', would make a more powerful sentence? I may not be phrasing my thoughts well, here. I mean, taking the reader more directly into the action? I am interested in what everybody has to say about this.

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ostarella
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby ostarella » Mon Oct 16, 2017 9:14 pm

I'm not sure what word you would use in its place, other than of course changing tense. "Was" in and of itself doesn't really affect the power of the sentence. It's the phrasing of the entire sentence and its context that determines the power. For example, I tend to notice when people us "a" when they really should use "the". "He sat on a couch." versus "He sat on the couch.". The former implies there's more than one couch to sit on - the latter indicates there's only one - and if someone was murdered on the couch, using "a" certainly takes away from the power of the sentence in context.

deddmann_writing
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby deddmann_writing » Mon Oct 16, 2017 10:27 pm

[quote="jackitaylor"]Something from the critique area got me thinking. I've read about being careful to not overuse the word 'was'. Aren't there times when rephrasing an idea, removing a 'was', would make a more powerful sentence? I may not be phrasing my thoughts well, here. I mean, taking the reader more directly into the action? I am interested in what everybody has to say about this.[/quote]
=======

Example please. Seems like <was> is a perfectly good past tense of is. Why avoid it ?

Maybe if it were used in a passive construction. Still need an example to understand your point.

jackitaylor
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby jackitaylor » Tue Oct 17, 2017 12:11 am

So nobody has heard or read that? I can find several articles on the internet right now, warning against overusing. Not just "was" but also were, is, and a few other common words. I have seen it called weak writing, or even lazy writing, and also referred to as telling rather than showing. I can't really come up with my own examples, off the top of my head right now (it's 1 a.m.) But if nobody's heard of that, then I won't worry about it.

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ostarella
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby ostarella » Tue Oct 17, 2017 1:15 am

[quote="jackitaylor"]So nobody has heard or read that? I can find several articles on the internet right now, warning against overusing. Not just "was" but also were, is, and a few other common words. I have seen it called weak writing, or even lazy writing, and also referred to as telling rather than showing. I can't really come up with my own examples, off the top of my head right now (it's 1 a.m.) But if nobody's heard of that, then I won't worry about it.[/quote]


Are you referring to "passive voice", or just to "to be" style words? Because there is a difference.

http://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/passive-voice/

Otherwise, over-use of any word is a problem. ;)

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updog
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby updog » Tue Oct 17, 2017 9:52 am

The problem with writing advice is it is often misinterpreted, and then twisted into an extreme. A famous author points out a better way of writing a passive sentence, and the next thing you know new writers are combing through their manuscripts deleting all the wases. The link in Ostarella's post explains the reasons to avoid or not avoid "was" and the passive voice. I hope everyone reads it.

We use "to be" verbs all the time when we talk to each other, so if we want our narratives to sound natural, we'll use was and were and other to-be verbs whenever it makes sense to. They are not always passive, and there is no reason to comb through your manuscript to delete all the wases. In fact, I'm willing to go so far as to say if you did eliminate all the to-be verbs, your narrative would sound ridiculous.

Passive construction, on the other hand, can weaken the writing, so it's good to look out for that. But even then there are times when passive voice is useful. Successful writers (and their editors) know this, obviously, because you can find passive sentences in pretty much every novel ever published. Point being, it isn't weak writing if you word something in a way that helps the reader see what you want him to see.
"Is it weird in here, or is it just me?" ~ Steven Wright



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wdarcy
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby wdarcy » Tue Oct 17, 2017 11:26 am

What everyone else said. There is no reason to avoid the verb to be any more than any other word. But like any word, it can be overused.

Charles Dickens certainly didn't shy away from using it in the first paragraph of "A Tale of Two Cities": "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." and on and on and on; I lost count of how many times he used the verb to be. And oh my, notice all those nasty comma splices. Can't have those, can we? Anyway, doesn't strike me as weak writing.

Or take a less extreme example, the opening of "Phantom Lady" by Cornell Woolrich, the great noir writer: "The night was young, and so was he. But the night was sweet,and he was sour." Does that sound like weak writing to you, Jackie? Sure doesn't to me.

Updog hit the nail on the head about the problem with writing advice.

--Warren
"Wagner's 'Das Rheingold'" (Oxford 1993). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 1995.

"Elements of Sonata Theory" co-authored with James Hepokoski(Oxford 2006). Winner of the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award, 2008.

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Noizchild
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby Noizchild » Tue Oct 17, 2017 2:51 pm

Yeah, I use was too much too. I think of it as a telling word instead of a showing word.
You ask me what I thought about
Before we were lovers.
The answer is easy.
Before I met you
I didn't have anything to think about.

-- From "The Love Poems of Marichiko"

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Dreaming Imrryr
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby Dreaming Imrryr » Tue Oct 31, 2017 10:03 pm

Using any word too much might be boring to the reader.

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Crono91
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Re: use of the word "was"

Postby Crono91 » Tue Oct 31, 2017 11:57 pm

I know what the OP is referring to, and it's hard to give an example of overusing the word. There's many examples of sentences that use "was," but the sentence itself isn't wrong. It's simply boring when it commands a paragraph, page, chapter.

"I was walking to my car when I heard a voice behind me."
"I walked to my car. A voice from behind startled me."

I feel like, for a lot of writing--once you've done it a lot--there's a "feel" you get as you write. A sense of self-awareness, that your intuition picks up when you think something is wrong with what you just wrote. No need to really go back and change as many "was" as you can find.
Be proud of your mistakes when they form from blinding passion. But now edit them.


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