Saturday, October 25, 2008

To "Was" or Not to "Was"

There is a lot said about avoiding the use of was in narrative because it can sometimes be a sign of passive writing. The danger there is that some writers avoid using that simple verb entirely. They hear in a critique group or in a workshop at a conference that they should get rid of passive verbs and replace them with active verbs.

In many cases, that advice is right on, but there are times when using was is proper. That usage denotes an ongoing action or activity, something that started before the character arrived on scene and will continue when the character leaves.

For example, “By eight o’clock preparations were underway in St. Peter’s Square for the general audience. Vatican work crews were erecting folding chairs and temporary metal dividers in the esplanade in front of the Basilica, and security personnel were placing magnetometers along the Colonnade.” (Excerpt from The Messenger by Daniel Silva.)

In this same scene, the central character, Gabriel, stops at a cafĂ©. “Gabriel drank two cups of coffee and read the morning newspapers.” Both action verbs because this is happening now, to this character, and will stop when he does something else.

Before the difference was explained to me, I would try very hard to eliminate all uses of that dreaded word and wondered why it seemed to make the narrative awkward. When it is used sparingly and properly, the narrative is smooth and one almost has to stop to realize the word is there.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Information about her books, her editing services, and her blogs can be found on her Web site at

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  1. I am so glad you wrote a post about this today. I am currently working through edits on a ms. and trying to remember my rules of past participle, when and when not to use forms of "to be" etc. Thanks for a quick, on target reminder!

  2. Totally agree with you Maryann. It would be exhausting to remove all versions of "was," both for the writer and the reader.

  3. It would be exhausting to READ nothing but action verbs. Especially at my age. Even excessive description takes the eneryg out of me.


  4. I'm totally guilty of trying to get rid of was! And not even in corrections - just in the middle of the first draft. So instead "The entire chorus was seated in the small room" I'd end up with "The small room encompassed the chorus" or something. This will be a good thing to keep in mind :)

  5. Emma, some time ago I was falling victim to this craze to eliminate this poor word from common writing, then I noticed it in some really great books from Anne Tyler, Ann Lamott and others. There is nothing flat or passive about their work, and that is when I really paid attention and made the connection that I posted about. I tend to learn the hard way.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.