Or, How I Kicked the Word ‘Was’ Right off the Page
Whether you write in third person past tense (e.g. Maggie stubbed her toe on the lip of a paving stone and belly-flopped onto the grass) or first person narrative (e.g. Drake looks at me like I’m nuts, but I know what I saw) forms of the verb to be screw with our writing. Was, were, been, is, am, are. AKA, my nemeses.
When I’m writing a first draft I type scenes and dialogue as fast as it pours out of me so I can get the framework down, from the first meet to the happily ever after. But that means I lose my critical eye for a few weeks and open the door for all kinds of sloppy, lazy writing to squeeze through. One of the worst–the word was and his brothers, were and been.
Before my first read through I use my find & replace tool to bold all the forms of was. Like this:
Martin was tired.
This is weak and lazy and just plain telling, not showing. Instead, I want to use stronger verbs and better phrasing:
Martin yawned. Or,
Martin yawned into his fingers. Or,
Martin’s head bobbed, startling him so badly he kicked the side table into Sarah’s shins.
It’s one of the easiest problems to find, but often the hardest to fix. It’s so tempting to write Martin was tired and hurry to the next action scene or romantic turning point. It’s a lot harder to dig in deep and immerse the reader in a complex and engaging world. So, roll up your sleeves and replace those devilish to be verbs with vivid and fast-paced action verbs that keep us all hanging on the edges of our seats.