De-Was-Ing a Manuscript and Other Editing Woes

I’ve spent the past ten days de-was-ing my third manuscript. It’s quite humbling. I think I’m finally getting the hang of writing, then I take on an editing chore like that and discover I still have much to learn.

First, I never knew there was anything wrong with “was.” (See? Wases proliferate when you aren’t paying attention. And what is the plural of was? Wases or wasses?)

Second, I have a hard time finding replacements. Some wases are easy to remove — change from passive to active voice. For example, this “was” was easy to fix: The gun was aimed at the old men. I merely switched to active voice: He aimed the gun at the old men. Eureka! One sentence de-was-ed. Sounds simple? Perhaps. Unless there are a thousand wases. I’ve found as many as a dozen on a single page, though to be fair, I’ve also found a page or two without any wases.

How many wases are acceptable? There is a philosophy of writing/speaking/thinking called E-prime (for English-prime) that says all form of the verb “to be” should be abolished. Nothing exists “out there” independent of a viewer, and all things are in a state of flux. To say the apple was red eliminates the witness, and not all witnesses see the apple as red. Does a color-blind person? Does a cat? Does a bee? Also, to say the apple was red ignores the stages of growth when the apple was green (unripe) or brown (rotten). But to say the apple looked red or some such makes a person/character sound uncertain about their ability to tell the color of the apple.

I’m not going to bore you with a discussion of E-prime (though if you understand E-prime, feel free to bore me; I’d like to understand it better). I just mentioned E-prime as one of the problems of de-was-ing a manuscript. Eliminating all wases seems impossible, yet which to keep? And how do you eliminate was in a sentence such as: He was a lawyer? You can change it to: He worked as a lawyer but that makes him sound as if perhaps he wasn’t really a lawyer. And how do you say: “When I was young, I liked to ride my bike”? Perhaps: “In my youth, I liked to ride my bike.” But few people talk like that, and it makes dialogue seem stilted and unreal.

So, I gradually de-was my manuscript the best way I know how, and hope that the remaining wases don’t detract from the story.

How do you deal with your wases?
What are your editing woes?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will be discussing was and woes during our Live Chat on Thursday, March 12th at 9:00 p.m. ET. Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it, feel free to discuss them here.

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15 Responses to “De-Was-Ing a Manuscript and Other Editing Woes”

  1. mickeyhoffman Says:

    Hmm, I don’t think I had a “was” issue but now you’ve made me paranoid!!! I spent hours de-hading mine. So I feel your pain. I was horrified to find so many of those! There were a few other words also that I had to scour out.

  2. Jon Nichols Says:

    Wow can I ever relate to this!

    For me, it is “had” that turns things sour in my writing. That one little word transforms an action to the passive voice faster than an agent can send me a canned “no thanks” letter.

    As Joe Konrath once said, “I wouldn’t mind the rewriting process if I had put more ‘re’ in it the first time around.”

  3. Suzanne Says:

    How funny that another author felt the need to come up with a word for taking “was” out of writing. After I made my first submission to a critique group, I realized that this was a problem I had to deal with. Eventually, I found so many “was’s” that I came up with the word “de-was-ify” to describe the arduous process.

    Among the many “was’s” I had to get rid of, I found two main issues:
    1) The subject is not first – You demonstrated this in your article. In, “The gun was aimed at the old men.” In this sentence, “the gun” is not actually the subject. It is the object–what was held. By adding the subject “he”, you eliminate the need for “was.”
    2) Using the past/present participle instead of a simple verb. “He was riding his bike” is an example of this. The better way to write this is, “He rode his bike.”

  4. Julietwaldron Says:

    I’m a sinner. I confess. Moreover, I split infinitives, am addicted to putting the cart before the syntactic horse, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) too many long-winded 18th novelists. Tristram Shandy, anyone?

    This is why it’s nearly impossible to edit your own ms. Do you ever critique?

  5. Ann Littlewood Says:

    You’ve opened the door to a pet peeve! (Yes, I also must “de-was” as well as “de-just” and “de-had.) BUT, to rant on, let’s all sharpen up our use of “only.” People, people, people–it modifies what comes immediately after it! “I only ran to the store” means I didn’t skip or walk. “I ran only to the store” means I didn’t run to the filling station or the bank. Search on “only” and see if it’s in the right place, which usually is NOT before the verb (but not always–context is everything)! There, I feel better now.

  6. Sarah Glenn Says:

    ‘Was’ is definitely on my list of words I work to eliminate. ‘Really’ and ‘also’ are two others. Major pain in the whazzis!

  7. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hi, Pat!

    I think it’s really noble of you to “de-was” your text. But it’s all relative, I would say. Maybe the narrator is a person who uses “was” often, and perhaps that usage really characterizes her or him well. In that case, I would leave every single “was.” I think the problem with “was” occurs when it is being used to create passive voice. In most cases (but not all) active voice is better, though there are definitely times when the passive voice is the right choice. As in, for example, the case of a narrator who is trying to deflect blame from himself, saying “A mistake was made.” But again, most of the time, I would try to convert passive voice to active. But you probably don’t have to get rid of every “was.” Just some of them. Howzat? WAS that okay?


  8. Scotti Cohn Says:

    I agree that you have to use your own judgment in deciding whether a “was” (or “had” or “just”) can be removed. Also, sometimes you have to use the past/present participle. For example: “I was walking on the treadmill when the phone rang” doesn’t make sense when written “I walked on the treadmill when the phone rang.” And I don’t think it is wrong to use “had” in the first sentence of a paragraph where you are “flashing back” to something that happened before the current activity. The key is to avoid doing it too often.

  9. Pat Bertram Says:

    I didn’t realize I WAS going to hit such a nerve with this article, but I guess you all thought it WAS okay. One of my problems WAS that when I WAS getting rid of the WASes, I ended up with other problems, such as too many “had”s, so that WAS another mistake. There WAS nothing wrong with many of my WASes, just that I used too many of them. Good thing the manuscript WASn’t filled with constructions like this comment, otherwise I’d still be de-WAS-ing when the sun burned out.

    I’ve been trying to be more spontaneous in my writing, getting the story down without letting my subconscious editor get in the way, but after the agony of de-was-ing, forget that! Like Joe Konrath, I’m going to be putting more “re” in my writing.

    Did I mention I still have one more manuscript to de-was? Yikes.

  10. joylene Says:

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,”

    Do you suppose Charlie ever wondered about de-wasing? Hmm. Looks like I’m in good company. But I must admit, I will never truly banish all WASes. Some of valuable and essential part of voice. And I’ve noticed some of my favourite authors still incorporate them in their good works. Lustbader, King, Walker, to name a few.

    I’ve been de-thought-ing, de-began-ing, de-starting-ing, and de-ing-ing.

    Pet-peeve = He began walking. Or He started moving.

  11. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Oh dear. Now I’m going to count wases and wander off to see what I missed on gather.

  12. Sheila Jones Says:

    As a middle school teacher I can say wases are hard. In fact the to be verbs are very difficult. Enjoyed reading another writers views on the subject.

  13. Claire Says:

    I honestly thing there’s entirely too much emphasis put on “was.” It is a perfectly good word. Sure, you can use a stronger verb sometimes, but other times, especially in dialogue, you just end up with your manuscript sounding stilted and unnatural.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Claire, I’m glad to hear you say that. I’m editing my fourth manuscript, and I’ve noticed how often I use “was” to get a certain effect that is eradicated if I try to eliminate the “was.”

  14. Yosis Says:

    Pat: I’m definitely arriving late to this party, but I wanted to let you know I found this particular article of yours (and associated comments) absolutely riveting. It brought to mind a grade school English class during which my teacher handed out pages and pages of writing and instructed us to replace the word “with” with (ha ha!) other words and phrases without (ha ha again!) losing the original meaning. So much harder than we imagined! Kudos to you and the success of your Was Extraction!

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