The evil “WAS” may not be so evil after all…


Photo by: Thomas Hawk

If ever there WAS a word that caused a whole heap of consternation within the writing community, it most definitely is the word “WAS.” A lot of time and effort has been spent focusing on whether or not this little word (and its variants (wasn’t, were, weren’t, etc) and others like it (looking at you: am, is, are, being, be, been, etc) are truly the bane of the publishing world or whether they are completely justified showing up within the beauty of our prose.

In this author’s opinion, the answer is a frustrating: It depends.

There are all sorts of reasons to be wary of the WAS, including but not limited to:

  • Could be passive
  • Is often vague versus being concrete
  • Doesn’t always convey the meaning the author intended
  • Can weaken sentences
  • and more…

Research the subject and you’ll get ALL sorts of hits on the debate — for example:

Ultimately, the word WAS and others like it are perfectly good words and have a place within fiction. Dialog aside (in which normally anything goes), I attempt to apply the same logic to these words that I do to any other word I place within my work:

  • Is the word interesting to read? If you create a sentence that “WAS” was made for (such as: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..), then by all means, use the word!  On the other hand, if you read the word and it doesn’t make you gasp (or, at least, nod in approval), then find one that does.
  • Is the word overused? If you search your prose (again, dialog aside) and you find 50 WAS’s within 2000 words, then I say you are most likely overusing the word! In one of the links I provided above, there’s a thought that 9 out of 10 times a WAS can be replaced with something better — and I’ve found that to be very true. Case and point, my last finished short story of 8000 words had 10 instances of WAS (and it’s variants).
  • Does it provide value? If the word provides value, then by all means, leave it in. And by value, sometimes is simply that you need a quick hitting sentence and cannot droll on to convey the meaning. I could image a scene where a character is running to a room, desperately trying to avoid a monster, jumping into a room and locking the door. Then realizing: It was there.

If a sentence contains WAS/WERE/etc and it hits all of the above, then I say it’s good in my book. If not, then I suggest seeking it out and replacing it with gusto!

It basically comes down to making sure the words you are using are intentional (to steal from my critique buddy), that you put some thought into whether or not WAS (or any word) is appropriate versus just being lazy and using a word because it’s considered OK by language teacher standards.

Your readers do not want a language lesson, they want to be entertained — so make your prose pop and do it intentionally!  Even if some of the word nerds decree your work as “bad” because it had a specific word in it… like WAS.

And there you have it — one person’s perspective on the great WAS debate. I hope this information helps you in some way. If you have any thoughts or ideas to share, please leave a comment.

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