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To "Was" or Not to "Was"

This post originally aired on October 25, 2008, but since the debate continues in writing circles, I thought the refresher would be good.

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 café. “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 Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

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  1. This article highlights so well that use and overuse are two different animals. Forms of the verb "to be" have a place in our language and in our writing. The problem occurs when they are overused or when a powerful verb would be much more effective.

    Great post, Maryann! :-)

  2. I just corrected the title - can't believe this ran twice without someone catching the typo. Hahahaha.

  3. Don't worry, I wouldn't have caught it ... now, what was I thinking ... ?

  4. That's a very helpful explanation. It's just an example of taking well-meaning guidance to the extreme - like avoiding the use of adverbs. There's a good reason to minimize the use of adverbs, but sometimes the adverb is appropriate and works. "Was" isn't bad, and adverbs aren't bad!

  5. May be a repeat post, but it's still a great reminder.


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