Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

Was It Too Much?

By Lazette Gifford
© 2007, Lazette Gifford

Recently on the Forward Motion boards, a question came up about the use, and overuse, of the word 'was.'  The discussion that followed wasn't entirely about passive voice, though obviously it relates to it, but rather about the excessive use of easy words.

Was is an unfortunately effortless word to drop into place as you merrily type along on your story.  I know, because I do it far too often myself.  It doesn't matter in the first draft, but it is important to go back and search for it (or any other overused word) when you edit.

I've always had trouble with was, but until I became an editor, I hadn't been able to identify the problem in my own work.  This ability to more clearly see ones own problems often happens for writers who begin critiquing someone else's writing.  We are sometimes blind to our own shortcomings and mistakes, but once writers start recognizing problems in others, it can help improve their own work.

My epiphany came as I read submission manuscripts. I sometimes noted that was seemed to pop up far too often.   If was started drawing my attention (and pulling me out of the story), I would have Microsoft Word™ check for the number of times it appeared. (In Word (at least the 2003 version) go to 'find' and ask it to highlight all uses of the word.  It will give you the count.)

How often is too much?

If you have a 250 page manuscript and you find you have used 'was' over 2000 times, yes, it is too much.  It means you are using 'was' once in about every 32 words. (Assume an average of 250 words per page on a properly formatted manuscript.  250 pages times 250 words = 62,500 words.  Divide that by 2000 and you get 31.25) And yes, I have seen such cases -- and worse -- because for new writers, was is often invisible.

How about 1000 times in 400 pages? (250 words per page times 400 pages=100,000.  Divide that by 2000 and you get 50.)   Maybe not a problem, but look it over anyway.  Make certain you are not writing the easy lines rather than the better ones.  (You can, of course, simply use the novel's word count and divide by the number of uses to get a closer approximation.  A 123,456 word novel with 2622 uses of was works out to was being 1 in about every 47 words.)

This is often a problem with new writers.  It's also something relatively easy to correct in an edit, and can help make your work stronger. Remember, though that this isn't strictly about passive voice, though, it will be the passive voice version that can be most easily rewritten for the better.  You don't have to rewrite every instance of the word, because sometimes a line is better written with was in place.  Other times it's not.

By the door was a box and inside was a lovely green vase.

A box sat by the door, and inside she found a lovely green vase.

You may not be someone who has to worry about this problem.  Writers who have been at the craft for a while have often already seen and corrected this problem in their work. 

You do need to worry about these things.  Some say not to worry about the little things, but I disagree.  Writers should worry about everything in their writing, because it is the little touches that will make your work stand out and shine. 

I'm not the only editor who has rejected a story for this reason.  I know, because my early work often came back with cryptic notes about 'was' and once Holly Lisle threatened to remove the 'w-a-s' keys from my keyboard.

Look for both the big things and the little things that can help your work improve.  Don't become obsessive about destroying every instance of such words, but do be aware of them.

The editors who read your work will be happier for the care you take.