The Dreaded “Was” Word

Writing fiction requires two distinct disciplines: Creative talent and grammatical expertise. Like any art form, writers are guided by certain commandments; a handful on the creative side, but many on the technical side. A writer pretty much has a green light to craft his or her story with few creative constraints. As long as the plot is plausible, an author is free to flex his or her creative muscles. But that is not the case on the technical side. Although there is a little wiggle room, the basic principles of grammar, syntax, sentence structure and fundamental language rules apply. 

The first commandment of writing fiction is, “Show, don’t tell”. Although this concept can be more complex than one might imagine, in a nutshell it basically means that a novelist should write more action scenes than narrative scenes. Instead of writing, “John felt angry”, write, “John kicked the lamp across the room”. 

The second commandment of writing is, “Minimize passive voice.”  The most common passive voice word is “was”. Instead of, “He was in love with her,” say, “He loved her.” Instead of, “It was a cold December day,” say, “The cold December day chilled his bones.” See the difference? 

As a writer, I can no longer read a novel as a reader, nor can I forgive a writer who consistently disregards the technical rules. Makes little difference if the story is compelling and engaging. If a writer bombards me with lazy sentences overusing the “was” word, I’m completely turned off. 

Unless you’re living in a vacuum, you’ve likely heard about the current literary phenomenon, the trilogy written by Stieg Larsson, the Swedish novelist who died shortly after delivering the three books to his publisher in 2004. He wrote, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The reviews on these books are off-the-charts fantastic, and the entire literary community is buzzing about these books. A dear friend of mine who is a voracious reader (she reads four or five books a week), told me that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the “best thriller she ever read”. Considering how many books she reads, that’s a hefty statement. 

As a writer of thrillers, I, of course, had no choice but to buy the first book in the series, if for no other reason than to find out if it lived up to the hype. Now bear in mind that Stieg Larsson wrote these books in Swedish, so the English translation may not accurately represent his style, narrative voice, or use of language. Well, I started reading it last night. And you know what I first noticed 12 pages into this book? The passive word, “was” appears 41 times. That’s forty-one-times in only twelve pages. If it continues at the same pace, then this 590 page novel will likely show the “was” word 2,015 times. 

You might be asking, “So, what’s the big deal? If it’s a compelling story, who cares how many times he uses the “was” word?” Here’s the problem. Even though you may not be conscious of the overuse of the “was” word, used so frequently instead of action verbs, the writing will seem flat. Not to mention the fact that the “was” word is not the only evidence of passive voice. The novel is inundated with passive voice sentences from beginning to end. As a result of this literary flaw, there is much more “telling” and little “showing”. The “was” word is the lazy writer’s crutch. It takes much more skill to craft a sentence without using the passive voice. 

I have no idea how this stunning flaw got past the editors at Random House (the publisher). But it is a sad commentary on literature in general. If substandard writing like this can catapult a book into the limelight, position it as a #1 NY Times Bestseller, then contemporary fiction as we know it is in serious trouble. 

I was very unhappy that this book was not what it was supposed to be.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Dreaded “Was” Word

  1. Poolie

    Language will never evolve without pioneers who break the rules. Stop hammering the technical stuff and allow yourself to be swept away. Get into the soul of Lisbeth and gave a little fun with the book, Daniel. Loosen that sphincter just a bit.

    • Daniel

      There is a distinct difference between breaking the rules creatively and violating the technical principles of grammar and language. Certain writers, based on a number of issues, have the luxury to write absolute crap and get away with it. If I ever delivered a “was-infested ms” to a publisher, they’d hand me my head.

      So there!

  2. Ken

    Is it a sign of my insanity that I could not get this poem out of my head as I read this whole post?

    Fuzzy Wuzzy
    Was a bear
    Fuzzy Wuzzy
    Had no hair
    Fuzzy Wuzzy
    Wasn’t fuzzy, was he?

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