It Too Much?
By Lazette Gifford
© 2007, Lazette
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.
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
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
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.