“Was” Killin’

By Linda Yezak

Sometimes you can’t get around using “was,” but more often than not, it’s a sign of the author’s laziness. The verb is sluggish, blah, boring. It lacks pizzazz.

It’s time to whack it out of use as much as possible and replace it with active verbs and, if necessary, rewrite entire sentences to make the sentences more active.

We’ve talked on this site before about using past tense vs what I’ll call “continuous” past for this post. Continuous past means something was in progress, “he was stealing my notes,” instead of saying it had already happened: “he stole my notes.” When you’re using “was” as part of the verb tense, you can’t help it.

But usually, you can.

The house was on a lake-side lot about fifty miles away, but I was in my super-sonic, souped-up Jaguar and could make the distance in less than five minutes. Sure enough, in four point two minutes I was exiting the car and walking up the drive. The door was unlocked when I got to it, and I went in. The house was empty, so I made myself at home in the kitchen.

I was pouring the sauce over the spaghetti when she walked in. She was stunning in her navy power suit, and her hair was swept up beautifully. It was enough to make me stop what I was doing to watch her glide into the room.

Two paragraphs, ten uses of “was.” Ouch.

I don’t think a reader who isn’t also a writer would mind this, but I’d be willing to bet the reader wouldn’t mind this either:

The house occupied a lake-side lot about fifty miles away, but I drove my super-sonic, souped-up Jaguar and made the distance in four point two minutes. I parked and walked up the drive to the front door. The doorknob twisted easily in my hand, and I went in. No one greeted me, no one answered when I called out, so I made myself at home in the kitchen.

I was pouring the sauce over the spaghetti when she walked in. She looked stunning with her up-swept hair and navy power suit. My hands stilled as I watched her glide into the room.

From ten to one, used in conjunction with the continuous past.

If you’re guilty of the “overuse of ‘was’” felony, it would be futile to use the search and replace function. Just reread your work from the beginning and hunt the monsters down. Pay particular notice to “it was.” Unless “it” serves as a pronoun you can trace to the noun it replaces, the sentence is passive–with the exception of its use in the memorable opening of a Charles Dickens novel.

The dictionary holds tons of verbs, good, strong, muscle-bound verbs. Let’s parade them out and let them strut their stuff, okay?


catladyLinda W. Yezak lives with her husband and three cats in a forest in east Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She holds a BA in English and a graduate certificate in Paralegal Studies. Thirty years later, she’s finally putting her degree in English to good use, combining it with her natural inclination toward story-telling to create fun, unique novels.linday

Her publications include Give the Lady a Ride, a 2008 ACFW Genesis finalist and a 2012 Carol Finalist, as well as a 2011 Grace Award Winner. Her new release, The Cat Lady’s Secret (WHICH OFFICIALLY RELEASES TODAY!), was a Genesis finalist in 2010. She was a contributing author for 31 Devotions for Writers, and coauthor with agent Terry Burns of Writing in Obedience.


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