De-was-ing My Manuscripts

I don’t seem to be able to write during the summer. The heat fries my creativity, or at least stifles it, so I use the time to send out query letters and edit my novels. For this current edit, I’m going through and de-was-ing my manuscripts. I have no objection to the word “was,” but it seems to be falling out of favor. Too passive, perhaps, and too weak. And I use it a lot; I have found pages that have six or seven wases.

Sometimes it’s easy to remove a was. I just replace it with another verb. He was still handsome becomes He still looked handsome.

Sometimes I find it more difficult, and have to rewrite the entire sentence. It was a nice day becomes The sun shone. The warm air smell of just mowed grass. Not brilliant prose by any means, but at least the was is gone, which satisfies the point of the edit, though I don’t see what was wrong with the first version. It might be bland, but it’s also the character’s opinion. By describing the day, it seems less personal; nevertheless, I made the change.

And then there are all those sentences that I can’t figure out how to rewrite. He was out of the habit of talking might become He’d lost the habit of talking, but it seems too severe for the casual comment I intended. In the end, I left it out. It might change the character’s motivation for not responding to a direct question, but at least I got rid of the was.

I’m having a problem with a few other sentences, too. He was a lawyer can become he worked as a lawyer, but that’s not the same connotation at all. Nor is She was in love the same as She loved him. And what about What was she doing here? Or He was her grandfather. Simple, ordinary sentences that became convoluted any way I try to change them. So I left them as is. If an editor or agent rejects my work because of a few stray wases, then they wouldn’t have been worth dealing with.

Or so I tell myself.

4 Responses to “De-was-ing My Manuscripts”

  1. KJ Says:

    I agree! You can take out many of the wases in exchange for more powerful verbs/phrases (I do prefer the transformation you came up with for “it was a nice day”), and it will indeed make your writing stronger; but there are times when only a good was will do.

    KJ, The Interminable Writer

  2. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I have gone on campaigns with search and replace, and obliterated that and was and got. Sometimes I think search and replace makes it too easy to do that kind of thing and it isn’t really all that helpful. But I know you write with pad and paper so you don’t fall prey to the sort of mindless editing I am talking about. Nowadays I try to look at each section of the prose organically and see how the words work together. If a piece just doesn’t seem to be working, cutting it out and putting it on a new piece of screen “paper” seems to make a difference, although for the life of me I don’t know why. I found a horribly embarrassing but funny double entendre that way, which I can’t repeat in this family blog posting…

  3. Bertram Says:

    I do my final edits on the computer once I’ve typed in the manuscript, and I know what you mean about falling prey to mindless editing. But sometimes it’s for the best. Yesterday I went on a search and destroy mission and got rid of dozens of “a little”s such as she was “a little nosy.”

  4. K.S. Clay Says:

    You don’t have to get rid of every “was”. A lot of people use “was” when it’s not necessary, though, and when it in fact makes their prose weaker and more passive. It’s about where you use the “was”, not whether you use it at all. By the way, I agree with KJ and liked your description a lot better than the “it was a nice day” because it paints a much clearer picture.

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